Saturday, February 08, 2014

O'Toole, Welles, and Milton on Hamlet

Huw Wheldon hosts a discussion by three master actors who know the play very well:

They discuss many of the big issues: what to make of the ghost, what to make of the madness, why Hamlet hesitated to kill Claudius, how best to pull the whole thing off.

Peter O'Toole and Orson Welles should need no introduction; Ernest Milton is somewhat earlier and was coming to the end of a distinguished career.

Honore de Balzac, Eugenie Grandet


Opening Passage:
There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspires melancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, dreary moorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is, perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, the skeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that a stranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounters suddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of an unaccustomed step.

Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of a dwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep street leading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street—now little frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certain sections—is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebbly pavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuous road-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong to the Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses three centuries old are still solid, though built of wood, and their divers aspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumur to the attention of artists and antiquaries.
(This is a different translation than the one I used, which was by Ellen Marriage; but it's easier to cut and paste.)

Summary: Felix Grandet is a cooper with both business savvy and extraordinary luck; he makes, inherits, and marries into multiple fortunes. He is also a miser, living like a pauper with his wife and only child, Eugénie; the servant of the house, Nanon, he gets for cheap because she is so ugly no one else will hire her. In 1819, on Eugénie's birthday, Charles Grandet, Felix's nephew, comes to visit. While there everyone learns -- Charles, of course, is the last to learn -- that the reason why Charles's father sent the boy to visit his uncle was in order to commit suicide; extraordinary debts have mounted up and he is killing himself to avoid the dishonor of becoming bankrupt. Before this comes out, Eugénie has fallen in love with Charles, who is something entirely new to her miser-dominated little world, and after the news comes out, Charles is so touched by her kindness and generosity that he too falls in love with her. However, Felix is sending Charles off to India to make his fortune, so they must settle for swearing eternal love to each other.

A subtitle of the book is "A Study of Woman," which could potentially set off alarm-bells, particularly given Balzac's pompous opinions about women, but the women in the book are drawn quite well. Eugénie herself is excellent, a quiet innocent put into difficult situations and surviving. But, of course, she must; she is not just a female character but a form of feminine strength. In the introduction to the edition I read, which was written by Richard Aldington, he criticizes some of Balzac's characterization choices:

Balzac risks alienating his readers from Eugénie and destroying the real pathos he has created around her by the bad taste of such remarks as: 'Before the arrival of her cousin Eugénie might be compared to the Virgin before the conception; when he went away she was like the Virgin mother--she had conceived love.' in trying to make her sound like female perfection, he comes near to making her ridiculous. And then we cannot help remembering that this transcendentally pure personage had easily overcome the scruples which suggested she ought not to read her cousin's love-letter to another woman while she was asleep. Of course, it is best that she should not be perfect, so why drag in the Virgin Mary?

I think this simply misses the point, however. Balzac is not trying to convey the idea that Eugénie is perfect; the whole point is that she is an ordinary girl growing into womanhood. The comparisons are not intended to elevate her but to underline the fact that there is in every woman some trace or shadow of that very potential that made the Holy Virgin, the Holy Virgin. Like the Virgin, Eugénie gives herself over entirely to love's Annunciation; like the Virgin, she stores up the things of love in her heart; like the Virgin, she remains true and constant to love; like the Virgin, she is pierced through the heart because of love. She's not the Virgin Mary, nor does Balzac write her as any sort of feminine perfection; her relation to the Virgin is much more like the relation of Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Growing up in a little provincial town under the utter domination of a miser, she still manages in her narrow and naive ways to show one of the profound potentialities of woman. That, at least, is clearly the goal at which Balzac was aiming.

It is said that Flaubert, not a fan of Balzac's work, nonetheless liked Eugénie Grandet, and it is interesting to compare this work to Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Emma Bovary and Felix Grandet both live usurious lives, the major difference being that Emma is ultimately ruined by it, whereas Felix goes on being successful until death takes him. (Balzac seems at times to take a certain amount of glee in building his miser up and up until the reader thinks the schemes would have to collapse somehow, and then finding new ways to foil the expectation.) The reason for the difference is that Emma lives her life on credit, borrowed money and borrowed pleasures on which she inevitably pays a high interest, while Felix drains other people's lives by taking more than he gives, 'giving' and then exacting penalties in cunning ways. In a society in which usury is rewarded, in which Bentham's defense of usury is enthusiastically endorsed by the educated, there is always more success to be had being a penny-pinching miser lending and ruining than a profligate borrowing and being ruined. And the reason is clear enough: the usurious life is the incipient form of the buying and selling of people, and enslaving is more comfortable than being enslaved. Charles Grandet exemplifies this as he makes his fortune in India literally buying and selling men; but Felix Grandet in his own way does the same thing all of his life.

And in the midst of it all is Eugénie Grandet, who gives freely, looks out for the interests of others, does not crave more and more, and who, having no opportunities to learn courage, nonetheless finds small ways to be courageous in helping others. She is the perpetual contrast. That is as it should be, too, for the opposite of usury is love.

Favorite Passage: Madame Cornoiller is the married name of Nanon, who remains faithful to Eugénie through the story.

Monsieur de Bonfons endeavored to put himself in keeping with the role he sought to play. In spite of his forty years, in spite of his dusky and crabbed features, withered like most judicial faces, he dressed in youthful fashions, toyed with a bamboo cane, never took snuff in Mademoiselle de Froidfond's house, and came in a white cravat and a shirt whose pleated frill gave him a family resemblance to the race of turkeys. He addressed the beautiful heiress familiarly, and spoke of her as "Our dear Eugenie." In short, except for the number of visitors, the change from lotto to whist, and the disappearance of Monsieur and Madame Grandet, the scene was about the same as the one with which this history opened. The pack were still pursuing Eugenie and her millions; but the hounds, more in number, lay better on the scent, and beset the prey more unitedly. If Charles could have dropped from the Indian Isles, he would have found the same people and the same interests. Madame des Grassins, to whom Eugenie was full of kindness and courtesy, still persisted in tormenting the Cruchots. Eugenie, as in former days, was the central figure of the picture; and Charles, as heretofore, would still have been the sovereign of all. Yet there had been some progress. The flowers which the president formerly presented to Eugenie on her birthdays and fete-days had now become a daily institution. Every evening he brought the rich heiress a huge and magnificent bouquet, which Madame Cornoiller placed conspicuously in a vase, and secretly threw into a corner of the court-yard when the visitors had departed.

Recommendation: This is a charming story with a fairy-tale simplicity and yet nothing cloying. Highly recommended.

Truth and Drama

One of my pupils observed to me the other day that there is more material in my plays than in my speculative writings that could be used for the working out of a doctrine of truth. And when I had thought it over carefully, I thought his remark basically sound. But if this is so, is it mere chance that it is so? Obviously not. The fact is simply the indirect confirmation of the more general fact that when we set out to speak about truth, as when we set out to speak about God, we are in danger of speaking about something which is not truth, but is merely its simulacrum.... We must ask ourselves, then, whether truth is something which can only be alluded to, in a glancing way. The role of the drama, at a certain level, seems to be to place us at a point of vantage at which truth is made concrete to us, far above any level of abstract definitions.

Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Part I, Chapter IV.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Proximate Description of Feelings in the Shape of Argument

Fables, again, are economies or accommodations, being truths and principles cast into that form in which they will be most vividly recognized; as in the well-known instance attributed to Menenius Agrippa. Again, mythical representations, at least in their better form, may be considered facts or narratives, untrue, but like the truth, intended to bring out the action of some principle, point of character, and the like. For instance, the tradition that St. Ignatius was the child whom our Lord took in His arms, may be unfounded; but it realizes to us his special relation to Christ and His Apostles, with a keenness peculiar to itself. The same remark may be made upon certain narratives of martyrdoms, or of the details of such narratives, or of certain alleged miracles, or heroic acts, or speeches, all which are the spontaneous produce of religious feeling under imperfect knowledge. If the alleged facts did not occur, they ought to have occurred (if I may so speak); they are such as might have occurred, and would have occurred, under circumstances; and they belong to the parties to whom they are attributed, potentially, if not actually; or the like of them did occur; or occurred to others similarly circumstanced, though not to those very persons. Many a theory or view of things, on which an institution is founded, or a party held together, is of the same kind. Many an argument, used by zealous and earnest men, has this economical character, being not the very ground on which they act, (for they continue in the same course, though it be refuted,) yet, in a certain sense, a representation of it, a proximate description of their feelings in the shape of argument, on which they can rest, to which they can recur when perplexed, and appeal when questioned.

John Henry Newman, "The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine," Oxford University Sermons.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Jesus the Probably-Not-Cynic

In certain sectors of biblical studies there has been a recent movement to argue that Jesus and his disciples are best seen as Cynic philosophers. The literature devoted to this idea is very uneven. Having read through a significant amount of it, my conclusion is that most of it is junk. There are, however, two people who do make arguments worth taking seriously; F. Gerald Downing and Leif Vaage. The arguments as laid out by these two (they do not have the same argument and their conclusions are different in some significant ways) thus lead us to ask the question: Is there reason to think that there is at least some definite influence linking the Cynic movement with Jesus and his disciples? Given the state of our knowledge on both sides of the suggested link, we aren't in a situation to say, purely on historical evidence, that there definitively was such a link or definitively wasn't, so what we really have to do is look at possible signs of linkage -- at which Downing is fairly good -- and possible ways in which these signs can be misleading. There are a few basic points to consider here.

(1) First, we need to know what we're talking about, and that's less easy than it sounds. What is Cynicism? We face a number of problems in answering that question; they are not sufficient to prevent us from answering it, but we need to keep in mind the obstacles to confidence here. The first is that we have relatively little information about the Cynics; the second is that most of what we do have is fragmentary and late; and the third is that the Cynic became a common archetypal figure.

We do not even know for sure why they are called Cynics. The Greek word Kynikos means doggish. There are conflicting stories about why they were given this name. On one story, it is because they began with the school of Antisthenes -- Antisthenes was one of the students of Socrates -- who is said to have taught in the Cynosarges. We don't know for sure what 'Cynosarges' meant, but obviously it looks like it has the 'dog' root. According to another story, Antisthenes was nicknamed Haplokuon, which means something like 'plain dog'. Again, for reasons we don't know. According to another, and much more famous, idea, it became attached to Diogenes of Sinope, supposedly a student of Antisthenes, because of his dog-like (i.e., shameless) behavior. The reason it's worth pointing this divergence out is that unlike other movements we don't know how it became a movement. In addition, you'll notice that all three stories end up linking the Cynics to Antisthenes -- about whom we mostly know only very indirect things, outside of some stories told by Xenophon -- and thus to Socrates. And one of the things that Stoics will later do is use the Cynics as one of their links to Socrates, through Antisthenes; any of the three might have arisen to support this link, so we can't even lay foundations with regard to the Cynics without worrying about Stoic mediation long after the fact.

Most of what we know about the Cynics comes through very late sources, the most famous of which is Diogenes Laertius (c. AD 300). Diogenes Laertius himself is difficult to assess; sometimes he is extremely reliable and sometimes extremely unreliable, depending on his sources. There still seem to have been Cynics around, in the sense of people calling themselves Cynics; but it's difficult to assess exactly how they relate to their forebears. We should be cautious about this. Some people calling themselves Cynics may well have just called themselves such on the basis of common stories about Cynic philosophers, in the way that people calling themselves Socratic today are not part of any ongoing Socratic movement, but just people who, finding ideas associated with Socrates in some medium or other, just start calling themselves Socratics. There's a perfectly legitimate sense in which they are what they say, but it's a very different kind of historical association.

Likewise, people who are called Cynics may or may not always have been Cynics; just as, if I were to call a friend 'John the Stoic', that could mean anything from his having fully imbibed Stoic ideas to his reminding me vaguely of what I've heard about Stoics. This is related to the fact that the Cynic was often used as a figure of example in philosophical, especially Stoic, arguments and discussions. Epictetus's Discourses, Book 3, for instance, which discusses Cynicism, is a philosophical argument in which the Cynic functions more as a type than as any historical description. A number of our other sources for Cynicism are Stoic, like Musonius Rufus, and in each case they aren't just doing history but arguing for a philosophical position. In a similar way, Julian the Apostate has two Orations (the Sixth and the Seventh), from which bits and pieces can be gleaned, but he argues that those in his day calling themselves Cynics do so without proper regard for their predecessors in the name, and that the basic principles of the early Cynics are in fact nothing other than universal philosophical principles in a particularly obvious form. Beyond that we have some anonymous works -- the Cynicus that used to be attributed to Lucian of Samosata and the Cynic Epistles. All of these together, including, interestingly, the Cynic Epistles just on their own, also give us a sort of schizophrenic Cynicism: Cynics are characterized in entirely inconsistent ways. At one point they'll be characterized as ascetical, at another as hedonistic; at one point their primary characteristic is said to be harshness, and at another their primary characteristic is said to be gentleness; at one point they'll be characterized as pure philosophers, at another as ignorant people trying to cover their stupidity with a name. Sometimes (as in Julian) the inconsistency seems to be historical, in that one form of Cynicism is treated as untrue to what Cynicism was (the historicity of which is not always clear); sometimes (as in the Cynic Epistles) the inconsistency seems to arise from traces of an ongoing debate about what Cynicism was in the first place.

None of this is to say that we can say nothing about the Cynics; we have plenty we can say, but when we do so we must keep in mind that we are always doing a fair amount of selection and reconstruction from the evidence. And on this regard, it does not seem actually to matter much how carefully we date things -- even if we're dealing with contemporary sources, which we can manage to an extent when talking about the first century, we can't always take them at complete face value -- and if we took them all straight we'd have an incoherent mess. By all means, let's talk about the Cynics; but let us do so with caution.

(2) What are some reasons why one might link the early Christians to Cynic movements? There seems to have been a revival of Cynic groups in the period, and there were people calling themselves Cynics all over the Empire, so there's the right kind of temporal and geographical contiguity to make influence possible. It's difficult to pin down what Cynics were doing in Galilee, but this is not in itself a serious problem. Geographical mobility in the Empire, while not always easy, was fairly common -- perhaps the most famous example is the missionary journeys of Paul. Groups, movements, and ideas diffused fairly easily through the Empire. So the remote conditions for influence are actually fairly promising.

One common line of argument is based on reconstructing Q. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, have a significant amount of overlap. One of the major candidate explanations of this is the Four Source Hypothesis, that Matthew and Luke shared two sources: Mark and another document, no longer extant, that is usually given the label Q. If you operate on this hypothesis and take Q to be what Matthew and Luke share that is not in Mark, you get a lot of sayings in loose narrative frameworks. Assuming (as the hypothesis would make probable) that this was, more or less, what Q would have actually been like, you can ask, were there any other kinds of works that exhibit a similar format or structure? And one possible example is the chreia. A chreia is essentially a pithy saying set in its occasioning circumstances. There are lots and lots of these chreiai devoted to Cynics; indeed most of what we might know about Cynics themselves, as opposed to about ideas attributed to them, comes from exactly such stories. Chreia-style anecdotes are fairly simple, whereas Q seems to have more elaborated stories, but it isn't unheard-of for people to take a chreia and expand it or develop it, and certainly at some point people started putting Cynic chreiae together in order to get Cynic Lives.

None of this on its own is very strong. You could, thus far, compare Q with the Analects of Confucius, if only China were just as close geographically: story-forms of this kind can spontaneously arrive. In the Roman Empire they were specifically cultivated, to be sure, but this is as much a problem as anything. Writing or developing chreia was a standard rhetorical and literary exercise; virtually anyone capable of writing a long work in Greek would have deliberately written or developed chreiai at some point as part of the usual practice in polishing their Greek. It would be extraordinarily stupid just to find chreia-like things and conclude immediately that they were signs of Cynic influence. So we'd need more, and it would have to do with content. Many of the stories in Q exhibit denunciation; denunciation is a common means by which Cynic parrhesia or frankness was expressed. One thing that might possibly be used to distinguish a Cynic idea from a Stoic one is the radicalness of the former (Stoics tend to think in terms of orderly, systematic change rather than sudden conversion or radical transformation); and certainly Q seems to insist on radical transformation. One position associated with the Cynics is the idea that poverty or simplicity is happy or blessed, makarios, which we certainly find in Q. Indeed, if you take the Beatitudes, you could give a plausibly Cynic reading of each one. One of the loose parallels with the Golden Rule is found in a chreia about Diogenes preserved by Stobaeus; asked how to master himself, Diogenes replies that one should reproach oneself with the same things with which one reproaches others. The list could be extended.

The argument through all of this is not that Q is just a Cynic Life, or that all the elements of Q are found in Cynic Lives; there are themes that clearly are not. But if you were to ask what other ancient works Q is most like, in format and content, an obvious answer would be the various works devoted to the Lives of the Cynics.

Of course, one problem arises immediately here, namely that the argument depends on comparing a reconstructed first-century Cynicism with a reconstructed Q document. I've already mentioned the cautions required by the first. Downing is actually quite good at navigating the potential dangers on this front. The other problem, of course, is Q itself. While the Four Source Hypothesis is still quite popular, if we were to switch to another major candidate solution for the Synoptic Problem, the increasingly popular Farrer Hypothesis, Q vanishes, because on that hypothesis Matthew used Mark and Luke used Mark and Matthew -- there's no need for a Q at all, since all the commonality attributed to Q is just in Matthew. And the Gospel of Matthew is not so obviously like a Cynic Life. This is not fatal for the argument; one of the things Downing is careful to do is to show that there is still quite a bit of resonance between Cynicism and themes and ideas found in Matthew, Mark, and James. After all, it is logically necessary that some of the possible content echoes in Q be found in Matthew! Nonetheless, it is true that the case is weakened if we remove Q from the equation.

So far, then, we have temporal contiguity, geographical contiguity, similarity of some content, and (possible) similarity of genre. One possible worry is that all this similarity may have more to do with how the stories were written up than with Jesus and his disciples being influenced by Cynics -- the similarity must be more than could be attributed just to the influence of Cynic genres on Greek literature and culture as a whole. Thus it's important for Downing to build up the number of parallels, which he attempts to do in Christ and the Cynics and Cynics and Christian Origins.

(3) All of this is good as far as it goes. But the points at which we are dealing with less than certainty are adding up quite quickly. One can worry that the Cynics are amorphous enough that it is a mistake to think of them as a unified movement capable of serving as a causal mediator in our explanation. We are picking and choosing what counts as Cynic. To be sure, what we are picking and choosing is plausible and fits the evidence well, but we could choose rather different things, as well. We run into the worry here that the parallels are due in great measure to our selecting out the aspects of what we know about Cynicism that fit with Christianity. We have to face the worry that a lot of the parallels on the board are fairly generic, and can be found even among non-Cynics. The chreia-like format of Q is perfectly explicable without appealing to Cynic influence, assuming there was even a Q. The obvious context of Jesus and his disciples is Jewish, and while this doesn't rule out Cynic influence and Downing is careful to argue that genre-wise Q and the Gospels are quite a divergence from common Jewish writing, one immediately has to face the worry that this difference has as much to do with the fact that our Gospels are being written in Greek, in a broader Empire culture, as with any actual influence. And there is a difference between Cynic genre and genre by which we know something about the Cynics -- it is true that chreiai, for instance, are often about Cynics, but we have only limited information on how these anecdotes would have functioned for Cynics, and we know that many of the philosophers transmitting such information about the Cynics are not actually Cynics. Barring a few works, most of what we know about the Cynics comes from Stoics or people obviously influenced by them. And the Stoics raise another worry. We have independent reason to think that Stoicism, a far more widely influential philosophical school, had a definite influence at least on early Christianity (e.g., Paul adapting vocabulary and forms that were common among the Stoics), so some of this supposed Cynic influence may just be Stoic influence on how the writers portrayed their subject. Other worries could be, and have been raised.

The problem is not any one of these individually. The problem is that there are so many points at which one can raise this kind of worry. This has led to a fairly common accusation against the Cynic hypothesis, namely, that it is irrefutable, not because it is solidly established, but because there are so many little parts that can be tweaked that you can force it to fit any evidence short of a text by Jesus being asked his views of Cynicism and replying, "What's Cynicism?" Actually, you could even make it fit that, since obviously Jesus could be influenced by Cynicism without either him or his disciples knowing that it was Cynicism he was being influenced by. Wax noses are hard to break; that's probably good with real wax noses but it is a flaw with the figurative ones.

A good example of this problem arises when we consider one argument that has been discussed at some length. Here is Mark 6:7-11 (NIV):

Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

This has parallels in Luke 9:1-5 and Matthew 10:1,5-14; some have argued that the story is both in Mark and Q. Regardless, one of the things critics have pointed out is that the begging bag is commonly associated with the image of the Cynic. Downing replies to this that it was by no means universal. And that is true. But the form of argument here is actually the same form Downing relies on; he's constantly saying that this or that is such that the reader would have naturally taken it to be Cynic. It is based on the image of the Cynic. And what the critics are pointing out is that you can find examples such that it would have clashed with any such expectations of what a Cynic would be. Finding parallels, Downing ignores the diversity of the Cynics and the fact that occasionally contradictory things are said of them; faced with a counter, he relies on the diversity. But we need to consider not only the Cynic-like features, but also the things in the text that are very un-Cynic-like. Downing is not afraid to admit such elements -- but he simply doesn't do what is required to take them into account in the argument itself.

(4) These are only a sample of the arguments on the table. It would be interesting if we could put Cynicism alongside Stoicism and Middle Platonism as philosophical influences on the early Christian community as manifested in the New Testament. I would say that Downing has done the service of bringing to the fore quite a few interesting parallels; this is enough to raise the idea of Cynic influence here from a mildly interesting idea to a genuinely intriguing one. But it seems quite clear that it falls short of doing anything more.

We can see this if we look at it the opposite way, as a question in the history of philosophy. Given the parallels, contiguity, and the like, would this suffice to treat the relevant New Testament texts as sources of information about first-century Cynicism? And the answer is quite clearly that it is not. What is more, the hypothesis doesn't actually seem to explain much that is not explicable on the basis of independently known causal factors -- Judaism, broader Greek culture, and the like. From a HoP perspective, the genre argument is weak by its very nature, and content parallels in the history of philosophy are often results of convergences in environmental factors rather than direct causal link, and there are enough other possible causal routes involved here that even if there is some kind of influence, it may be too farflung or tenuous to trace. This is especially true given how diverse the Cynics seem to be and how secondhand and contradictory a lot of information about them is. The hypothesis merely posits a fact of influence and not a clear means thereof; there's nothing wrong with this, but it has the implication that even if true it couldn't tell us much about the diffusion of Cynic ideas. The argument largely exhausts itself in establishing its point and we don't get much real illumination on either Cynics or early Christians from it. The parallels remains rough parallels and there's not much more to say. Moreover, the Cynics are so diverse a group, and our information about them so stylized, that while it's worth further inquiry, there is a real possibility that this is as far as we can get on the point. In HoP, since we aren't historians but philosophers using historical methods, we might posit the influence as an abstract exercise just to see the results, without worrying too much about whether we were dealing with history or reasoned counterfactual speculation, and the possibility of historicity would certainly be worth a footnote or comment on occasion. But this is a long way from the sort of historical claims proponents of the Cynic hypothesis are making, which don't seem to handle the Cynics as a philosophical movement very well, and seem to keep our understanding of the Cynics and the early Christians largely where they were before.

Two Poem Drafts

Both fragments.

From the Rig-Veda

May we be favored of the For-All,
for truly he is king, sustainer of being,
generated fro here, he views all;
the For-All has vantage with the sun.

In heaven invoked, on earth invoked, Agni,
indwelling all plants invoked,
the For-All powerfully invoked, Agni;
let him by day protect us from harm.

O For-All, may it be true of you,
may fair treasures follow us,
let this be done for us by Mitra, Varuna,
Aditi, Sindhu, Earth, and Heaven.

The Seaward Road

Distress flies away, darkness dissolves,
Shadow was here but no gloom remains.
Who once walked in darkness have seen great light.
On those who live in shadowed lands light has come.
He has glorified the seaward road.

Great joy you have brought them, gladness-overflow,
harvesting rejoicing they celebrate,
making merry as if dividing great loot,
for the burdening yoke, the bar,
the taskmaster's rod you have smashed.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Recombining Eyelashes

I'm helping out a bit with a confirmation class, and in the recent class the topic was reconciliation; the person presenting on the topic asked the students, all of high school age, what 'reconciliation' meant. Several answers were given, but my very favorite was "Recombining eyelashes!" Most people laughed, probably because they just thought it was a weird thing to say, but I was actually pretty impressed, because it's a very highbrow joke -- actually, I don't know for sure if it was intended to be a joke, but it would still have impressed me if not. 'Reconciliation' comes from re- and concilium; concilium, which is an assembly or meeting, has something like 'calling together' as its root meaning. But the Latin word for 'eyelashes' is 'cilia', so you could also pretend that the word should be divided as re-con-cilia-[a]tion. Or in other words, putting eyelashes back together. If it was a joke, it was a clever joke that shows that the student has been paying attention in Latin class. And if it was meant seriously, it was a mistake that shows that the student has been paying attention in Latin class.

Faith and Fulfillment

Faith, unlike the natural experience of God, in a certain sense is already marked by fulfillment, though not, of course, as our own experience fulfills what we merely know, but rather as what we clearly understand compared to what we only have vague "hunch" about (not yet taking "natural knowledge of God" here for natural theology but for the "grasping along with" of a higher power in plain natural experience). Again, faith is marked by fulfillment as an enrichment of the content of knowledge (insofar as it tells us something new about God over and above our natural experience and natural theology). And lastly faith is fulfillment as a confirmation by a higher authority of what we have already known.

Edith Stein, "Ways to Know God," section 4c3, in Edith Stein, Knowledge and Faith, Redmond, tr. ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2000) p. 107.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Bentham on Champerty and Maintenance

Jeremy Bentham's theory of money and lending plays a significant role in Eugénie Grandet, so I've been re-acquainting myself with his Defence of Usury. One of the things that struck me on this reading was the following passage at the beginning:

In a word, the proposition I have been accustomed to lay down to myself on this subject is the following one, viz. that no man of ripe years and of sound mind, acting freely, and with his eyes open, ought to be hindered, with a view to his advantage, from making such bargain, in the way of obtaining money, as he thinks fit: nor, (what is a necessary consequence) any body hindered from supplying him, upon any terms he thinks proper to accede to.

This proposition, were it to be received, would level, you see, at one stroke, all the barriers which law, either statute or common, have in their united wisdom set up, either against the crying sin of Usury, or against the hard-named and little-heard-of practice of Champerty; to which we must also add a portion of the multifarious, and as little heard-of offence, of Maintenance.

Since maintenance and champerty are in most places no longer on the books and are not common terms in any case, the force of that second paragraph is easy to overlook. Champerty and maintenance are crimes of litigiousness. So why does a general liberty of making contracts on whatever terms one pleases do away with laws designed to limit lawsuits? Ah, there's the interesting thing. Champerty is establishing a contract with someone in a lawsuit allowing one to share in the proceeds from the lawsuit. Maintenance is paying someone to sue someone else for financial reasons. Almost the very first conclusion that Bentham draws from his general principle of unrestricted liberty of contract is that one should therefore allow people to invest in other people's lawsuits for profit. This position, the reasonableness of trading in other people's lawsuits for profit and gain, is a rather remarkable one. Bentham devotes the entire twelfth letter to discussing it. It's quite clear that he knows what he's saying:

To the head of Maintenance, I think you refer, besides other offences which are not to the present purpose, that of purchasing, upon any terms, any claim, which it requires a suit at law, or in equity, to enforce.

Champerty, which is but a particular modification of this sin of Maintenance, is, I think, the furnishing a man who has such a claim with regard to a real estate, such money as he may have occasion for to carry on such claim, upon the terms of receiving a part of the estate in case of success.

He calls these the barbarous precautions of a barbarous age, and, quite unexpectedly given his usual views of the state of affairs in British law and justice, insists that it's the excellent impartiality of the British court system that makes them no longer useful:

A mischief, in those times it seems but too common, though a mischief not to be cured by such laws, was, that a man would buy a weak claim, in hopes that power might convert it into a strong one, and that the sword of a baron, stalking into court with a rabble of retainers at his heels, might strike terror into the eyes of a judge upon the bench. At present, what cares an English judge for the swords of a hundred barons? Neither fearing nor hoping, hating nor loving, the judge of our days is ready with equal phlegm to administer, upon all occasions, that system, whatever it be, of justice or injustice, which the law has put into his hands.

It seems a little odd to hang the elimination of a judicial protection entirely on the character of judges. I also find it interesting that he doesn't consider the possibility of abuse by investors; when he attacks the laws against maintenance and champerty he does so entirely by insisting that people should be allowed to borrow money when they need it for a lawsuit, and so claims that the laws against champerty and maintenance are bad for the poor. But he never considers the possibility of people stirring up lawsuits in order to gain profit at the expense of the poor, nor the broader implications for things like employment that it might have for businesses and businessmen as targets of lawsuit. This is not the only work in which Bentham attacks laws against champerty and maintenance, though: it's not a quirk of this argument, but one of Bentham's major positions on the subject.

People often claim that Mill's liberalism, and particularly the harm principle, are inconsistent with his utilitarianism. In reality, I think the two go together quite well; people who argue for the inconsistency usually have a very different idea of utilitarianism than Mill does. But I honestly don't see how Bentham's argument for liberty of contract is consistent with Bentham's own utilitarianism; Bentham's utilitarianism is much less flexible than Mill's, and the principle of liberty of contract, as he formulates it, is a vastly greater restriction of the power of sanction than Mill's harm principle, at least in monetary matters. The harm principle allows restrictions; Bentham's principle of liberty of contract none. One very famous example from Mill's discussion of the harm principle provides a sharp picture of the difference in restrictiveness: Mill explicitly argues that contracts in which one sells oneself into slavery should not be allowed. Bentham's liberty of contract commits him to allowing it.

Webb on Classical Theism

Stephen Webb has an article at First Things that makes a very common mistake in dealing with what people believe -- I mean, besides the fact that it makes some odd claims here and there. The basic argument in which the mistake occurs is that classical theism "reduces God to the idea that intellectuals have about themselves."

Of course, if we look at people who unequivocally fall under the label 'classical theist' in the history of thought, none of them actually set out to do this; and it's difficult to identify any who can even plausibly be regarded as doing this. And that is where Webb's error lies. 'Classical theism' is a classificatory label; it is a category under which various positions fall if they meet certain criteria. But it does not follow from this that classical theisms are nothing but whatever it is that makes them meet those criteria. That would be like thinking that because mammals are warmblooded animals with hair and female mammary glands for nourishing young, and because human beings are mammals, that the whole of human life is summed up in having hair and mammary glands in the female. In reality, every classical theism is much more than just the features that make it a classical theism. And since classical theism as such doesn't set out to reduce God "to the idea that intellectuals have about themselves", the only way to say this would be to look at all classical theisms and show that, as a matter of fact, they all do end up doing this. You can't get the conclusion from general reflection on classical theism.

Of course, what Webb is really doing is trying to define a particular view as the right one, and accuse the major opposing category as trying to eliminate what he thinks are the advantages of the 'right' view. This, of course, is rarely the case in reality: positions end up in opposition not because one side is trying to get rid of the advantages of the other but because they don't think it has good reasons behind it. Not recognizing this is a recipe for tendentiousness; all Webb manages to do, for instance, is attack a position for not, according to its opponents, establishing what its opponents think important in the terms in which the opponents think it important. This is not reasoning, this is just stating a position without regard for what actually establishes it.

We see this in the comments quite clearly; Webb says at one point in the comments, "I am not saying that classical theists have no way of thinking about this, but the resurrected body is certainly a thorn in their flesh (or a very difficult concept for their minds!)." OK, but the vast majority of theologians, historically, who have held a doctrine of resurrection have been classical theists -- they were the ones who argued for and defended it against its opponents for almost all of its history A.D. So not only do they have a way of thinking about it, it doesn't seem to have been such a very severe 'thorn in the flesh' that they were tempted to get rid of it; they affirmed it over and over, argued for it over and over, insisted on its importance over and over. So in what sense is the doctrine of the resurrection any sort of problem for the classical theist, given that so many classical theists have accepted it, argued it, regarded it as important? And the answer is, strictly speaking, nothing whatsoever: none of the features that make someone a classical theist rule out resurrection of the body. Classical theism is a position about divine nature; what is more, it is a position about divine nature that by definition sharply distinguishes itself from any positions about human nature. Because of that, there is no logical bar in classical theism, as such, to any particular claim about the resurrection of the body. Classical theism is consistent with there being no resurrection. It is consistent with an account of resurrection that sees it as a reunion of soul and body. It is consistent with an account of resurrection that sees human beings as nothing but material atoms in an order and the resurrection as simply the restoration of that order to some set of atoms. Only by importing a lot of other things do we actually get any definite tendency to one such position or another. Classical theism is not a position about the human body; as one can easily guess from the 'theism'. Likewise, while classical theists generally have views about matter, classical theism is not a view about matter; thus it's mere sloppiness to say that for classical theists, "matter, being formless, is the absence of the divine". We would have to be looking at specific classical theisms -- and then it's unreasonable to take the specific case as generalizing to them all.

I'm not even going to discuss the rest of the argument, which looks very gibberish-like; much of what he attributes to classical theism is mixed up with things that classical theists have often historically rejected, precisely because of the error noted above, and that makes it almost impossible to figure out what the argument actually is, even setting aside the weird and completely unhelpful rock vs idea of rock example. His entire second and third paragraphs, for instance, are simply baffling. I definitely fit the 'classical theist' classification, and of the four names he gives I have read quite extensively in Augustine and Aquinas, have some real familiarity with Plotinus and Origen, and I have no clue what he's talking about overall. Perhaps this is just lack of clarity. But the mistake noted above definitely infects the piece.

ADDED LATER: In a further comment, Webb says:

For me, the main error, if I may speak boldly, of classical theism is its absolute separation of spirit and matter, which makes it hard to imagine or conceptualize how our bodies will be in heaven (or how heaven will be a place, or how Jesus will rule there as an embodied person). I do think that in the end classical theism undermines the idea that God is a person (it provides only the barest of resources to affirm that God is a person, as opposed to the idea that God is personal in some way).

This is an even better example of the problem than that noted above. (1) Classical theism as such doesn't commit one to any particular view of how spirit and matter are related; it's not a general position about spirit and matter but a label put on a bunch of views that share certain theistic ideas. (2) Setting aside the weirdness of the statements about heaven here, it thus follows that classical theism, as such, is consistent with any number of positions about bodies and heaven.

It is also worth pointing out, incidentally, that the people who invented the vocabulary for actually saying that God is personal in some way were all classical theists, since identifying what it is for anything to be personal in some way was byproduct of arguments for Nicene theology. Our considering ourselves persons is a backformation from orthodox Trinitarian theology, the major defenders of which, East and West, all meet the conditions for being counted as classical theists.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Unhomely Homes

Joseph Simmons on the problems with the second installment of the Hobbit movie at "Ironical Coincidings" is quite good. A sample:

In the original story, remember, we follow the company through a series of unhomely homes. The eagles’ eyrie; Beorn’s house; the elvenpath; the spiders’ webs; the elves’ caverns; the barrels; Laketown; the hidden doorstep; and, finally, the Lonely Mountain itself. These follow a chiastic structure, save for the Lonely Mountain. The eyrie and the doorstep make promises, but they can’t stay there for long. Beorn and Laketown are suspicious of strangers, but welcoming to those who meet their lofty expectations. The elvenpath and the barrels keep the dwarves safe on the road, but are claustrophobic. The spiders and the elves take them prisoner, and Bilbo must help them escape. Then, at the end, the Lonely Mountain: the dwarves are at home, but the rest of the world does not want them to be. This is the human content of The Hobbit, the stuff that makes the action worthy of our attention.

The first movie, however incompletely, recognized that The Hobbit is about home–about having it, losing it, leaving it, looking for it, having to make do without it; about being welcomed as a guest, being barred as a stranger, being captured as an intruder. “The Desolation of Smaug” replaces this all with action....

Three Poem Re-Drafts


The golden crown upon my head I give,
or would if golden crown I had to give,
and with it all the life I have to live,
if life were something such as I could give;
for when and where you dwell the good shall live,
and there I too must wish to love and live,
and though it cost me dear, I dearly love
to love your life and give to you my love.

I love you! But can you return the same?
I clearly see you love me not the same,
and that your love is mostly love in name!
From day to day your look is not the same;
the tone will change with which you say my name.
Indifference loves no man, nor loves his name:
it wreathes your look; it stifles every love,
and proves, perhaps, that you will never love.

And yet I still somehow in hope can live!
Without a victor's crown a man will live
through other joys, and joy may give.
Though not the greatest way a man may live,
a man unloved may still his own love give
until new fortunes new loves to him give.
Undaunted, I to you will give my love
until the day I too am crowned with love.


The air is hot and dry,
obscured by storms of dust.
Endless realms of sand
parch with fatal thirst.
Yet even on this desert planet
water can be found,
dew in secret places,
pools by wind-worn rocks.

I dreamed:
This desert was a beach,
mist was in the air,
great waves of philosophy
broke against the shore.

The Same

The thought will wrap around me
(I know it is not true):
I can know your eyes again
and start that life anew.
Enticing is the dream,
addictive is the game --
but I am as I ever was;
you are still the same.

The whisper of the serpent
is tickling in my ear;
mists of faded memory
raise visions faint, unclear.
But you and I were burned before
by sparks from foolish flame --
and I am as I ever was;
you are still the same.

I remember how it ended;
it broke beneath our weight,
our hearts spilled out upon it,
redemption came too late.
The dog returns to vomit
and man to hurt and blame!
For I am as I ever was;
you are still the same.

How much I wish to do it,
to wrap your arms around
like someone coming home
and kissing native ground.
But we know where that will end:
with sorrow, anger, shame --
for I am as I ever was;
you are still the same.

Aikin and Talisse on the Ontological Argument

Aikin and Talisse, in the course of discussing the ontological argument:

Let's say that Satan is, by definition, the worst possible thing. If something is the worst possible thing, then it not only must have lots of bad properties, but it must not have any perfections; it must be the kind of thing that could not be made any worse than it already is. If it had a perfection, it would be better, not worse, than a thing that lacked that perfection, and thus would not be the worst possible thing. Next, we adopt the Ontological Argument's premise that existence is a perfection. And the conclusion swiftly follows: Satan must lack existence.

The problem with the argument is that if existence is a perfection the worst possible thing cannot be such that it must lack it. Or, in other words, what we usually mean by 'worst possible thing' is 'worst thing out of all possible things'. And since possible things are things that can exist, the worst possible thing is simply going to be the worst thing consistent with the perfection of existence. There are other things we could mean by 'worst possible thing'; we could be using the term 'possible' in some nonstandard way to include things that cannot exist. But in either case, there is no particularly significant link between this argument and the ontological argument: the argument isn't parallel and the proponent of the one isn't automatically committed to accepting the other.

Aikin and Talisse go on to commit a logical mistake here:

If one accepts the Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan, one must hold that there are some evils that, in virtue of not existing, are worse than evils that do exist. Consider a case of evil – say, the kidnappings in Cleveland, Ohio. An implication of our Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan is that the morally identical copy of those kidnappings that might have happened in Pittsburgh but did not, are worse than the ones that occurred in Cleveland.

I'm not sure what 'morally identical copy' is supposed to mean here, since actual circumstances are morally relevant, but it doesn't follow from "there are some evils that, in virtue of not existing, are worse than evils that do exist" that "all evils that do not exist are worse in virtue of not existing than evils that do exist"; for instance, there could be evils that presuppose something existing for their evil (and, indeed, the kidnapping example trades precisely on that fact) without the existence itself being evil (because, again, actual circumstances are morally relevant -- for instance, whether something is really kidnapping depends on what is really true about its context). This latter point is not inconsistent with claiming that existence is a perfection; put them together and you have a version of the privation theory of evil, which is, in fact, the most plausible view of evil if you accept an ontological argument. (It's the most plausible view of evil on most reasonable presuppositions, which is why it has traditionally been the most common view of evil; but it is especially plausible if you accept the ontological argument.)

They go on to say, about the premise 'existence is a perfection':

And that's the premise driving our Ontological Argument for the Impossibility of Satan, and some version of this premise features in all versions of the Ontological Argument for God's Existence that we know of.

I suppose it depends on how strictly or loosely one interprets the premise, but it's worth pointing out that Anselm's argument doesn't rely on any such premise, if we are interpreting strictly. The closest is the claim that what exists in reality and the mind is greater than what exists merely in the mind. This does not strictly require that existence be a perfection; it is a comparative, not a categorical, claim, and I see no reason to think that there aren't other suppositions on which it would also be true. If, for instance, Gassendi's claim against Descartes, that existence is not a perfection but that without which there is no perfection, is true, Anselm's argument still proceeds as it ever has. (It is true, though, that there is some interpretation of the 'existence is a perfection' premise that Anselm would accept; this is true of virtually anyone of even broadly Platonistic tendencies, whether they accept an ontological argument or not.) It is also worth noting that the ontological argument at the beginning of Spinoza's Ethics does not depend at all on anything that looks like such a premise. And, indeed, all you need to run an ontological argument is a possibility that implies existence, or an idea that implies its corresponding reality; even in Cartesian contexts, 'existence is a perfection' is merely put forward as the reason for being sure that you have it.

But in any case, it is clear enough that we have to be careful about two things here. (1) The notion of a given premise "driving" an argument. It is quite true that there are ways in which a premise might do more work for a conclusion than its co-premises, but conclusions derive from their whole set of premises. And in Aikin and Talisse's Satan argument, it's not merely the 'existence is a perfection' argument that is doing real argumentative work but also assumptions about possibility. (2) Even if we hold that the 'existence is a perfection' premise does the lion's share of the work, and the Satan argument has force, one can't get immediately from the Satan argument to the problematic implications that they think make the premise problematic.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Music on My Mind

Two very different pieces:

Peter Hollens, "Scarborough Fair"

Postmodern Jukebox with Miche Braden, "The Story of My Life". It's a One Direction song, and Braden's vocals make it so much better that it goes to show what everyone knew already: Motown-pro soul beats boy-band pop.

Notes and Linky Things

* Antti Kauppinen on Moral Sentimentalism at the SEP

* Brian Glenney on Molyneux's Problem at the IEP

* David Bokovov discusses the Documentary Hypothesis at "When Gods Were Men"

* The difference between baking soda and baking powder, and how to make a substitute for the latter from the former

* The website continues to provide excellent insight into the mind of the American people. The petition to deport Justin Bieber easily hit the 100G threshold; it has now been signed by a quarter million people. The counterpetition, which was just recently started, has until March 1 to reach the 100G threshold. However, there is already a supplementary petition in favor of deporting Justin Bieber with nearly 30,000 signatures, which is doing much better than the previous counterpetition, with just over 2000 signatures, and the previous previous counterpetition (he doesn't deserve deportation because he is human and makes mistakes) with just over 7000 signatures.

But, in seriousness, the website provides an invaluable insight into democractic governance. This is what our campaigns and votes would be on if our society were fully democratic. And, actually this makes sense; if you go back and look at the sorts of things the ancient Athenians did -- well, they would have been debating the deportation of Justin Bieber, too.

* I like Miriam Burstein's Victorian Poetry syllabus

* Jeffrey L. Morrow, The Early Modern Political Context to Spinoza's Biblical Criticism (PDF)

* Basic tutorials to a wide number of ancient languages at Early Indo-European Online, including Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and Church Slavonic. (ht)


* Flannery O'Connor reading "A Good Man Is Hard to Find":