Saturday, March 15, 2014

Czenzi Ormonde, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba


Opening Passage:
It was a time of waiting. Lifted by winds that come before the winter rains, the sighs of Jerusalem were carried far. They cooled the tents and hearts of those who still dwelt in the desert; the ardor of lovers in distant fields. They shamed into silence the haggling in the market-places and pressed the gentle hands of the old, who remembered, against the laughing mouths of those too young to remember that David the King had been a mighty warrior in the days of his glory.

Now he was old and stricken in years....

Summary: The story of Solomon in 1 Kings is largely a string of episodes with some information about how Solomon organized his kingdom, so anyone attempting to write biblical fiction about Solomon has to consider how to unify it into a story. Ormonde's approach to this is interesting, since she takes the narrative order of the story in the book of Kings to be thematic rather than chronological. This is not an immediately obvious way to read it, but there's something to be said for it textually, and it has the advantage for novel-writing that you can draw on practically all the material of the text. Thus, for instance, Adonijah, Solomon's brother, dies in 1 Kings 2:25, as part of a series of passages on the transition from David to Solomon, while Solomon marries the daughter of Pharaoh in 3:1, which begins a number of passages on his rule, starts preparing to build the Temple in 5:1, and is visited by the Queen of Sheba in chapter 10, in the middle of a set of passages discussing his trading empire. In Ormonde's novelization, the story is framed by the Adonijah story, with most of it occurring at the beginning, but Adonijah's death at the very end; the visit of the Queen of Sheba overlaps the building of the Temple and is motivated by the massive trading system Solomon is beginning to build up; and so forth. The major difficulty raised by this is why there is such a long delay before Adonijah's death, since it is difficult to make sense of any such gap in the 1 Kings narrative. Ormonde's solution to this problem is somewhat ingenious, although perhaps not entirely plausible.

The basic story, of course, is set. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba. He was not the oldest son of David. That had been Absalom, who had died in an attempt to take the throne from his father. Another older brother, Amnon, also died. The next oldest was Adonijah son of Haggith who, as David was "old and stricken in years" (1 Kings 1:1, note Ormonde's deliberate echo in the opening passage), and, indeed, apparently bedridden and needing a nurse, Abishag, to take care of him, began to prepare for taking the throne; the text tells us that even as he gave himself kingly airs, "his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so?" (1:6). In addition, Adonijah had the support of David's commander, Joab, and one of his major counselors, the priest Abiathar. However, there seems to have been some doubt in the court as to the propriety of Adonijah's behavior; we are told that a number of other significant people in the court, including Zadok the priest, the commander Benaiah, Nathan the prophet, and the old guard who had fought with David "were not with Adonijah" (1:8). At this point, Adonijah calls a great feast, inviting many important people, but not, very noticeably, Nathan, Benaiah, Solomon, and the mighty men of David. Trying to cut the conservative element of the court out, it seems. While this happens, however, Nathan the prophet -- the very same prophet who had excoriated David and Bathsheba for their original adulterous liaison -- goes to Bathsheba, pointing out that as soon as Adonijah seizes power for real, her life and the life of her son is in danger. He tells her to go to David and remind him that he promised her their son would rule, and that they will likely instead be killed if Adonijah takes power. This she does, and while she is doing so, Nathan himself comes in (he seems to have had an extraordinarily devious mind), tells David about the big feast Adonijah is hosting and, as nonchalantly as you please, asks David if he had given Adonijah the throne and Nathan had just not received the memo: "Is this thing done by my lord the king, and thou hast not shewed it unto thy servant, who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?" (1:27).

David immediately responds as you would expect him to, given his experience with Absalom: he makes a countermove to cut the ground from beneath Adonijah's feat. Solomon will be anointed king by Zadok and Nathan, blow the trumpet to let the people know, and have Solomon set on the throne of Israel. This they did. Messengers inform Adonijah after the fact, all his guests scatter, and Adonijah flees to the nearest altar for sanctuary. Two major mistakes, you see: the first in doing everything so blatantly and alienating the old guard, and the second in courting the powerful and not realizing that what makes the king is that the people recognize him as such. Once David had Solomon proclaimed king in a way that would be recognized by the people, Adonijah had no chance. Solomon promises, however, to spare his life as long as he's a good boy. David dies and Solomon's rule begins well. Adonijah, however, comes to Bathsheba asking for a favor: let Abishag be given to him as a wife. Bathsheba carries the request forward. Solomon sees it as a power play by Adonijah: "And why dost thou ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? ask for him the kingdom also; for he is mine elder brother; even for him, and for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruia" (2:22). Indeed, it very likely was a power play, an attempt by Adonijah to establish that he really did have some claim on the throne; Adonijah's comments to Bathsheba strongly suggest that he still thought of the throne as taken from him, the rightful claimant. It was also strongly suggested earlier in the narrative that Abishag had been witness to what happened when David gave the throne to Solomon. In any case, Solomon takes it as proof that Adonijah is not, in fact, acting in good faith, and has him killed. As I noted above, in order to have this story structure the main tale, Ormonde inserts a gap between Adonijah's request and his death of many years, during which Adonijah schemes in exile.

The major focus of any novel called Solomon and the Queen of Sheba will be the King and the Queen. Solomon as Ormonde imagines him is a man of warm understanding, inclined to think the best of people, including his brother Adonijah; he also does not really want to be on the throne. His mother, Zadok, and Nathan put him there, and now that he is there, he will do his duty, but he does not really think of himself as entitled to it. He is also shown from the beginning to have a weakness of women; Adonijah jokes about it early on.

In tradition, there are two major sources of legend about the Queen of Sheba outside the Bible itself, an Arabic strand and an Ethiopian strand. (Sheba was almost certainly the Kingdom of Saba in southwestern Arabia across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, and ancient Yemen and Ethiopia both had thriving Jewish populations to cultivate such legends.) In the Arabic strand of legends she is called Balkis or Belkis; in the Ethiopian strand, she is called Makada. Ormonde draws on both. The Queen of Sheba at the beginning of the novel is Belkis, a ruthless tyrant of a woman set on draining her kingdom dry in order to have the most magnificent tomb ever built; her heir and successor is the young Makada, who kills Belkis out of self-defense. Makada is being managed by the ruthless and manipulative Vizier, Tamrin, and between the two of them, they work out a way to foil Solomon, whose increasing power over major trade routes worries them both. Like many kings (1 Kings 4:34), Makada comes to Israel on a trade mission, but she is out for more than that: she intends to find Solomon's weakness and bring him down.

Ormonde makes a lot of very good choices in building her narrative. There are some things I wish had been given more play, though. For instance, Ormonde emphasizes the idea that David originally intended to build the Temple because he recognized a fundamental weakness in human nature that needed to be addressed. David had done an immense amount of work to build for his people a spiritual legacy; but spiritual legacies are invisible, and people take for granted what is invisible. So the Temple was to be a visible sign of this invisible legacy, a way everybody could just look and see it. This fits very well with much of the rest of the narrative, since it contrasts with Solomon's temptation to focus so much on visible legacy that he nearly fails to preserve the spiritual legacy it was supposed to represent. It doesn't exactly fall out of the narrative, but it doesn't get as much development as I think it should have. I also wish there had been more of Tanis, the Pharaoh's daughter; she was written very well, a very sympathetic character, and she does to some extent fall out of the story for no good reason.

Of course, the major centerpiece of the novel, qua novel rather than qua biblical fiction, is the sexual tension between Solomon and Makada. This is a fairly obvious move, one not strictly required by the biblical narrative, but one very consistent with it. We are told that "when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart" (1 Kings 10:2) and that "king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty" (10:13), both of which would be remarkably strong statements if the point were just that they worked out a nice trade alliance. The interesting twist, of course, is how Ormonde makes this, and the strong praise of the Queen for Solomon in 1 Kings 10, fit with the fact that Makada is the primary villain of the story.

Favorite Passage: In this passage, Makada and Tanis are talking about Solomon. Makada is baffled by the Israelite worship of only one God, and asks Tanis why, when she married Solomon, she did not embrace his God rather than continue to worship her own, which she has to do in very quiet discrete manner. Tanis replies that he didn't ask it of her.

"If he had?"

Tanis spoke with slow deliberation. "I don't know. It is not a simple thing, to relinquish the belief of your fathers. I have no wish to turn my back on the comfort and nourishment of my early years. I don't believe it is possible. I could stand before the Ark of his God, perhaps move my lips in the songs of his worship, till I would be fearful that when the time came for my lifeless heart to be weighed on the scales it would know the fury of Thoth. Still, I read the forbidden rolls that ell of the one deity of Ikhnaton. He was believed to have a loving hear that looked on men with mercy--the same as Solomon's God--so I sometimes wonder--"

Recommendation: It's no Ben-Hur, but it is a competently constructed tale with some beautiful passages. It also does have that air of Golden-Age-Hollywood biblical epic. So if it happens to come your way, I recommend you try it out.

From Lonely Hut and Busy Town

Across the Sea, Along the Shore
by Arthur Hugh Clough

Across the sea, along the shore,
In numbers more and ever more,
From lonely hut and busy town,
The valley through, the mountain down,
What was it ye went out to see,
Ye silly folk of Galilee?
The reed that in the wind doth shake?
The weed that washes in the lake?
The reeds that waver, the weeds that float?
A young man preaching in a boat.
What was it ye went out to hear
By sea and land from far and near?
A teacher? Rather seek the feet
Of those who sit in Moses' seat.
Go humbly seek, and bow to them,
Far off in great Jerusalem.
From them that in her courts ye saw,
Her perfect doctors of the law,
What is it came ye here to note?
A young man preaching in a boat.

A prophet! Boys and women weak!
Declare, or cease to rave;
Whence is it he hath learned to speak?
Say, who his doctrine gave?
A prophet? Prophet wherefore he
Of all in Israel tribes?
He teacheth with authority,
And not as do the Scribes.

Chrysologus for Lent X

What the sun is for the day, this is what we consider almsgiving to be for fasting: just as the sunbeam makes the day brighter and scatters all the dark clouds, so almsgiving sanctifies the sacredness of fasting and by the light of compassion drives out all death that comes from desire. And in short, what the soul is for the body, this is how generosity is regarded for fasting: for just as the soul by leaving the body kills the body, so too the departure of generosity is the death of fasting.

Sermon 8, section 2

Friday, March 14, 2014

Notable Links

* Graham Ware discusses chains of violence in I and II Samuel.

* John Baez on how to find and solve problems.

* Mark Edwards on Origen at the SEP. It's a bit more florid than one would expect from an article in the SEP, but in substance it looks quite good.

* John Kaag on coming across the library of William Earnest Hocking.

* Two posts on Jonathan Edwards's analysis of freedom and necessity at "Analytic Theology, etc.":

Myth Busters: 'Jonathan Edwards Committed a Modal Fallacy'
Jonathan Edwards and Necessity

* Frederick Wertz, Qualitative Inquiry in the History of Psychology (PDF)
Blaine Fowers, Placing Virtue and the Human Good in Psychology (PDF)

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes, A Plea for Descriptive Metaphilosophy as Philosophy. The paper she mentions in the post, on the different ways in which logic has been said to be formal, is a very good one, extremely useful for a number of philosophical projects (clarifying the relation of informal logic to formal logic, for instance, to take just one extremely obvious example, but there are many other obvious possibilities that spring to mind on any reading of the paper, related to questions in philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and conceptual analysis) and the referee who suggested that it was of "no real philosophical value" is -- to be quite frank -- an idiot who is a disgrace to the profession.

But it is par for the course. Historians of philosophy tend to be (relatively) irenic on this particular point and just shrug off the denseness of colleagues who have difficulty grasping that history of philosophy is an approach to philosophy and not a subfield of the academic discipline of history, but it gets increasingly tiresome, particularly since HoP is in practice the major organizing principle of philosophy as a profession: structuring undergraduate curricula, establishing vocabularies so that philosophers from very different backgrounds can interact, supplying new concepts and arguments.

* Scott Stroud, Analogical Thinking and Aesthetic Response: Emergent Images of the Philosopher in the Analects and the Apology (PDF)

Chrysologus for Lent IX

We have heard, my brothers, how high God's graciousness have brought us, and how high the celestial paternity has exalted us. Let us believe that we are sons of God, let us prove equal to our lineage, let us live for heaven, let us represent our Father by our resemblance so that we do not destroy with our vices what we have attained through grace.

Bring to the Lord, you sons of God. Bring. You see that our heavenly Father declares his love by his generosity, he manifests his affection by what he has given and his charity by his gifts. And truly, brothers, who does not compliantly obey the Author of his life, whoever does not unite with him through worship, whoever does not honor him with gifts does not know that he is his son, is heartless, denies his nature, and is ungrateful to his Father.

Sermon 10, section 2. He is preaching on Ps 29 here. The 'gifts' he means are people: we are to bring the Lord 'sons of rams' according to the Psalm; and Chrysologus, transferring it to the Christian, says that we should bring prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors: that is, we should bring those around us to faith.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"How to Think" and "How to Improve Your Mind"

Venerable Fulton Sheen's "How to Think" (1955) from Life Is Worth Living:

And "How to Improve Your Mind" (1956):

All things considered, they are both pretty good. The first is better than a lot of 'critical thinking' resources you find floating around. The second is a discussion of the virtue of studiousness (studiositas), and has the classic line, "That's when knowledge begins to spoil: when you've lost touch with the common man."

The 'Venerable', of course, was given him in June 2012; it is given after an investigation into whether the person in question lived a life that is in some way exemplary of the major virtues. And last week a major step toward beatification was completed as a purported miracle passed preliminary investigation, which was an examination by a board of medical experts to determine that it is not a trivial or common occurrence, and was forwarded for the next stage of investigation, in which a board of theologians will examine it for theological significance. Of course, there is no timetable for these things. Caesar Baronius, the ecclesiastical historian, has been stuck at the Venerable stage for something like 270 years now, and Maria de Agreda for something like 340.

Are There Any Rights-in-Trust for Children?

There's a common scheme used in discussing children's rights, going back to Joel Feinberg. There are A-C rights, which are shared by adults and children. There are A rights, which only belong to adults (right to vote is the usual example). Then there are the somewhat misleadingly named C rights, which are rights that are had by children as the norm and by adults only under special circumstances. Feinberg notes two subclasses of such rights, in particular: dependency rights, which are rights to the instrumental goods of life connected with the fact that the person in question is a dependent, and what he calls "rights-in-trust". I would suggest that "rights-in-trust" is an ill-formed category, and that its influence on discussions of children's rights has been detrimental to the discussion as a whole. I will mostly focus on laying out some basic reason for skepticism about rights-in-trust, and take it as given that if there's reason to think the category ill-formed that the confusion it can cause to arguments down the line is itself reason to stop using it.

It's difficult to get any adequate characterization of what these rights-in-trust are supposed to be. Feinberg says that they are analogous to the kinds of A rights that are associated with autonomy. (I don't think it's usually realized just how high this sets the bar for formulating it; autonomy rights have to be very precisely formulated, because small divergences in formulations, or interpretations of formulations, can lead to extremely different practical conclusions.) The basic idea is usually said to be (and is explicitly said by Feinberg to be) that children have autonomy rights but cannot exercise them, so we 'save' these rights for them so that they can exercise them later. Both clauses should worry us a bit.

In the first clause, which gives rights-in-trust their occasional name of "anticipatory autonomy rights," we are quite literally talking about the autonomy rights of the non-autonomous, rights that people somehow have now that we are somehow morally justified in not letting them exercise now. It's fine if you don't think this is a contradiction; but it needs to be more widely recognized that it is a paradox in need of a precise account to show that it is not a contradiction.

In the second clause, this talk about 'saving' rights is itself troublesome, because it's unclear what counts as 'saving' a right for someone for later. Rights are not like money or heirlooms, which are very limited kinds of trusts. There is very little you can do with them, so what counts as good stewardship of them for later can be quite precisely defined. Every genuine right, however, covers an indefinite scope of action within a more-or-less precisely defined domain of action; what you can do with a right is limited only by human ingenuity in using it. So the usual way to determine what counts as good stewardship or conservation is useless here: everything you do with everybody can possibly affect the precise future actions that are available under a given right. If we posit that I have a right to choose my own religion, just as a toy example, the fact that American schools do not teach about Sikhism in a culture that is largely oblivious to the fifth largest religion in the world is limiting the ways that I would be able to exercise my right. This is obviously not going to be avoidable. And the same problem arises with other rights that are not such toy examples. The maintenance of political parties massively limits the scope of how I can use my right to vote, for instance. Thus it would seem that it would have to be the right itself, not any particular way of exercising it, that is to be kept in trust. But how one protects a right whose exercise is some set of unknown actions in the future is somewhat problematic. If I have a right, right now, we can just look at what the scope for using it is right now, and protect the right by protecting that scope of action. If there is question of whether a greater scope of action is allowed, we work it out by discussion and like, using the current scope of action as our basis. Even the right to vote, which superficially looks like it can only be exercised occasionally, in reality also guarantees that precise mechanisms and institutions be in place so that we can vote at a designated time, and this aspect of the right can be exercised at any time. You have the right now, you can exercise it now by demanding protections under it now, and what protections you can demand are very precisely definable. This is simply not the case with autonomy rights; ex hypothesi, they are not rights that children have except 'in trust', and there are no precise mechanisms and institutions within which they exist because the whole point of an autonomy right is that it follows from human reason itself, which covers the whole of human life. Beyond protecting life itself, how do you judge beforehand what needs to be done to keep autonomy rights exercised?

This is related, incidentally, to an immediate practical problem with the idea, namely, that it's unclear that any parent can actually parent in this way. Parents are usually trying to deal with immediate problems in the present and, to the extent that they are able, set their children up for success as best as they know how. But protecting a currently existing autonomy right is very difficult -- it requires having the right kind of government, the right kind of culture, and so forth. These are things that parents can't guarantee, so are they not the trustees of these deferred rights? But if society as a whole holds these rights in trust, then it's unclear why this doesn't require an extraordinarily high level of intervention in parenting by the various means by which society protects rights. Our trust-the-parents-unless-there's-a-sign-of-a-serious-problem approach would be as absurd as just trusting that everybody has autonomy rights until it's obvious that they no longer do. Likewise, looking at the discussions, it seems like there's a common assumption that this standard would favor progressive rather than conservative parenting, but without a precise account of what it is to hold these rights in trust, it's not obviously congenial to either; indeed, without such an account we have no idea at all what parenting would have to be like to take this as a major standard of parenting. Just protecting the (much more precisely defined) dependency rights of children is full-time work for parents; even trying to set their children up for success is an icing-on-the-cake thing that parents are usually relieved to be able to manage to the limited extent they can. How they are supposed to take their children's entire future into account, in some vague open-ended way that can take into account all the situations that are actually possible, and do it all the time, is a problem I don't think can be assumed solvable for most parents, regardless of their parenting style. To put it in other words: the difficulties of protecting autonomy rights seem to transfer to these rights-in-trust -- but none of the ways that make it possible to get around these difficulties when dealing with autonomy rights actually had right now (e.g., the fact that you don't have to cover indefinitely many situations but only the one in front of you right now) seem to transfer with the difficulties. You'd have to have other ways of handling the difficulties -- and without a precise account, it's unclear what they would even be.

One of the common ways of talking about these rights-in-trust is to say that children have a 'right to an open future'. Feinberg himself, despite using it as the title for his famous essay on the subject, regards this as a loose, secondary label for these kinds of rights; it gives you the gist, and so is accurate enough, but there is no unrestricted right to an open future. It's just a way of distinguishing between autonomy in a proper sense and whatever it is that children have that corresponds to it. If you look at later discussions, though, it's quite clear that it's the set of ideas associated with the label, right to an open future, that has really dominated the discussion. This is worrisome in itself. I don't think Feinberg ever does manage to give us a sufficiently clear notion of rights-in-trust, but at least the point was to be relatively precise; 'right to an open future' was just a handy, imprecise label to make it easier to talk about the rights in question without confusing them with autonomy rights in the strict and proper sense. Obviously there's no way to determine what an 'open future' will be beforehand; and keeping some futures 'open' always involves trying to close down others. (Claudia Mills has a good discussion of some aspects of this in her article, "The Child's Right to an Open Future?") Again, we need the precise account, not the label, and especially not the set of mere associations that the label misleadingly is capable of suggesting.

My suggestion is that, in fact, A-C rights (human and civil rights shared by adults and children) and dependency rights are quite enough. That is, it's not clear that there is anything gained by dragging in these 'rights-in-trust'. What's more, I think trying to fit rights into such a category actually deteriorates serious rights that are held under these two other categories. One of Feinberg's examples, for instance, is the right to exercise one's religious beliefs. According to Feinberg, this is an A right that is only held in trust for children, and one of the whole points of classifying them this way is to insist that the latter is a very different thing from the former. But in fact, the right to exercise one's religious beliefs is clearly an A-C right; the difference is not in the right itself, and there are lots of situations in which we would obviously recognize that the child already has the right to exercise his or her own religious beliefs. If someone were to try to force your child to join (to use a purely random example that should not be taken as in any way a likely possibility) Tenrikyo, and you are not yourself a participant in that religion, this isn't just a violation of your rights as a parent, but a violation of your child's own religious rights right then and there -- not of your child's rights down the road as an adult. What is really happening here is that the same right has different modalities because the right doesn't eliminate the facts of the parent-child relationship, which includes education in religious matters. Everyone outside that relationship, though, still obviously has to respect your child's basic right to exercise whatever religious beliefs he or she might have. The child's autonomy right may be more limited than the adult's, because the child's autonomy is itself only being developed, but it is not nonexistent! The category of rights-in-trust downgrades the real, however sharply limited they may be, autonomy rights of children by treating children as if they had none.

Feinberg himself comes close to recognizing this last point. He recognizes that it's hard to draw the line when dealing with older children -- he just doesn't properly consider that all the lines we draw between childhood and adulthood are arbitrary lines of convenience, so the most natural conclusion (which is the implicit assumption in how parents in general actually parent, I must point out!) is that the rights grow naturally with the natural growth of the child. If that's the case then, many of the things that would be categorized as 'rights in trust' will in fact be genuine A-C rights at different stages of growth.

It's also unclear why anything else couldn't be taken care of as just ordinary dependency rights. All the most obvious ways in which parents and, for that matter, society, can take the future of their children into account are things like feeding and educating for which the child has a dependent's right here and now. All the alleged conflicts between rights-in-trust and the A rights of parents that end up having to come before the court are much more naturally seen as apparent conflicts between the A rights of parents and the dependency rights of children. Feinberg tries to handle this by saying that these conflicts are often not dealing with the immediate health or development of the child; but I don't see that this is anything other than an obvious modal scope fallacy -- having the dependency right in the present doesn't mean that it doesn't cover more than the present.

So those are some of the reasons I'm skeptical of this whole notion of rights-in-trust. There are attempts to answer bits and pieces of these problems, but I find none of them adequate. It just doesn't seem properly thought out. And given that it has dominated so much of children's rights discussions, I think this is a very definite problem.

Chrysologus for Lent VIII

All who lighten and relieve the arduous rigors of their labors show that music has been given to us as a natural solace for toil. Hence, sailors overcome the perils of the sea by singing; in this fashion they transport immense burdens with the comfort of songs; hence, the sound of music enables travelers to climb steep hills; hence, a melody leading the way even rouses soldiers to undergo the bitterness of warfare; and in short, any task, however hard and laborless, a sweet song masters and brings to completion. So let us, brothers, join the divine songs to the fasting of Lent, so that the heavenly symphony may temper and lighten the burden of abstinence.

Sermon 10, section 1.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Polysemic, Polyvalent, Multivalent

There are a number of ways in which a single text could be said to have different meanings, and a number of them have come up in literary scholarship, rhetorical theory, and philosophy of literature.

(1) One way is polysemy in the proper sense: it belongs to the meaning of the text to be taken in more than one definite sense.

(2) Polysemy needs to be distinguished from mere ambiguity, however, although sharp distinctions are often not made in practice. Polysemy in the proper sense is conjunctive. If I write a double entendre, the whole point is that the same text has more than one definite sense, and this having-of-two-senses is itself part the meaning: the text means both. Mere ambiguity, on the other hand, is disjunctive. If I'm merely ambiguous between two senses, it is indeterminate what my meaning is: it could mean one or the other. We could call this polysemy, too, if we wanted -- and it often is called such -- but we do need sometimes to distinguish the conjunctive and disjunctive forms, because they function very differently in interpretation.

(3) Another way is polyvalence. Polyvalence occurs when the text, taken in one sense, admits of different valuations of that sense. As Celeste Michelle Condit puts it (talking in the context of television), polyvalence is "the fact that audiences routinely evaluate texts differently, assigning different values to different portions of a text and to the text itself." Thus if an author writes a text that is making use of polyvalence, he or she has carefully set up the text so that even if the readers agree on the meaning of the text in the narrow sense of what actually happens in the text, they can still disagree on the meaning of the text in the higher order sense of how to interpret this lower-level interpretation. For instance, you might have a story in which it was perfectly clear what a given character did, but where different people could take this same character doing this same thing as acting heroically or villainously. Or, for instance, you might have a story in which it is very clear what happens in a crucial scene, but the story itself leaves open whether the scene is merely a dream or a real part of the narrative. The ending of the Consolation of Philosophy is importantly polyvalent in the sense that we can read it either as Philosophy succeeding in curing the narrator (the traditional way of reading it) or as Philosophy failing and settling for the best she can do (which is what we find in the interpretations of Relihan, Marenbon, etc.).

(4) A fourth way texts can have different meanings comes from some of the excellent work of Scott R. Stroud on philosophical narrative: a text could be multivalent. As Stroud puts it: "A multivalent narrative uses contradiction and multiple value structures within the text to allow audience members to 'grasp' the familiar portions of the narrative and then slowly acculturate themselves to the non-native portions of the concepts involved through reconstructing what the narrative means in terms of valuation." Thus Krishna, to use Stroud's example, provides multiple arguments for Arjuna to fight, but they aren't all obviously consistent with each other -- they aren't necessarily inconsistent, but the text is building a situation in which we have a lot of different kinds of values involved, and their interrelations are partly left to the reader or listener to figure out. The Consolation of Philosophy also provides an example of this: there is a shift in the kind of argument being made between Book II and Book III, so that the terms and arguments of each are not exactly on a par -- in Book II we are dealing with preliminary approximations as Philosophy provides the weeping narrator painkillers, and in Book III we begin to get a more rigorous approach as Philosophy begins to shift from strengthening the patient to treating the underlying disease. In a multivalent text, we have different kinds of values side by side in the text itself, and their relation is not resolved, because part of what the text is doing is putting the question of how they relate to the reader or listener (and this even if the text overall gives guidelines to how the reader is to do it).

So are there other ways in which we can talk about texts having different meanings?


Quotation from Condit is from Celeste Michelle Condit, "The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy," p. 498, as found in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, Lucaites, Condit, and Caudill, eds. The Guilford Press (New York: 1999).

Quotation from Stroud is from Scott R. Stroud, "Multivalent Narrative and Indian Philosophical Argument: Insights from the Bhagavad Gita," Journal of Indian Philosophy 7.1 (2002), p. 67. This is available online (PDF). He has other texts on the subjects, including "Narrative as Argument in Indian Philosophy: The Astavakra Gita as Multivalent Narrative" (available in PDF here) and "Multivalent Narrative: Extending the Narrative Paradigm with Insights from Ancient Indian Philosophical Texts" (available in PDF here).

Chrysologus for Lent VII

Whoever does not fast for the poor person, is playing tricks on God.

Sermon 8, section 4.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lady Mary Shepherd on Hume's Account of Causation

This is mostly for my own purposes; I wanted a more readable format than in Shepherd's own nineteenth century publication, and putting it here makes it easily accessible. This is from An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect, pp. 131-135. The second, fourth, and sixth play some important roles in Shepherd's attack on Hume's account of causation; but, interestingly, none of these failings are Shepherd's primary point of attack -- it's the development of Shepherd's own account of causation that does most of the work in her criticism.


I appeal to those who are acquainted with Mr. Hume's Essays, if this statement be not the sum of the argument—and I also appeal to every man capable of logical accuracy, if it doth not involve every species of illogical sophistry; for,

1st.—There is drawn a general negative conclusion; from an examination of particular instances only. If the adversary may not draw from particular experience the general affirmative conclusion, that there is a necessary connexion; neither can Mr. Hume infer a general negative position, that there is not a necessary connexion between Cause and Effect. He also deduces a general affirmative conclusion, viz. "that the future shall invariably resemble the past; from particular instances only.

2dly.—The mind is directed to infer a conclusion against the general relation of Cause and Effect, by the demonstration of a proposition in nowise inconsistent with it; namely, that like sensible qualities, NOT being like Causes, might be followed by DIFFERENT Effects.

3dly.—A general negative conclusion is in fact drawn from negative premises, merely;—(however the illogical method may be disguised both as to manner and diction), for it is concluded there is no proof for the existence of the general relation of Cause and Effect between objects ;— because experience shows that like sensible qualities are not like Causes; and are therefore not necessarily connected with like Effects!

4thly.—The question is shifted from the examination of the general relation of Cause and Effect, to that of the criterion for ascertaining the presence of like Causes.

5thly.—The very proposition is admitted, which is in dispute; in order to serve the purpose of his argument;—first, in the statement that impressions are the productive Causes of ideas;—secondly, in supposing the secret powers of an object to be alone the real productive Causes of its future properties;—thirdly, in conceiving Nature may alter her course for the express purpose of changing the secret powers; and that they are changed by such alteration; —and lastly, in alleging custom to be the sole Cause (i. e. producing generating principle) of the IDEA of causation.

6thly.—The proposition that the course of nature may be supposed to change, is used ambiguously, signifying indifferently either an uncaused alteration of the SUBSEQUENT sensible qualities or of the ANTECEDENT secret powers.

7thly, and lastly.—The two chief propositions of the argument are in opposition to each other; for Mr. Hume attempts to establish, that CUSTOM not reason is the principal of causation, whilst he allows Reason to be the sole ground and necessary Cause of this belief.

In presenting the foregoing observations to the reader's attention, I have endeavoured, I hope, without presumption, to show that Mr. Hume's reputation for logical correctness has been overrated. The effect of his work is to astonish by its boldness and novelty;—to allure us by its grace and lightness; his propositions are arranged so artfully, that their illogical connexion is not perceived, and the understanding, without being satisfied, is gradually drawn into inferences from which it would gladly but cannot readily escape.

On Guyton on Fundamentalism

Morgan Guyton has a baffling post on fundamentalism whose argument is, as far as I can see, largely nonsensical. The basic conceit is that there are seven 'instincts' of an English major that are inconsistent with fundamentalist readings. You can already tell the absurdity of the argument with the first 'instinct':

Unsubtle communication is bad writing

The measure of how good a writer you are is the degree to which you are able to communicate with subtlety. If I know how a sentence is going to end before I’ve gotten there, then it’s a crappy, uncreative sentence. To be unsubtle and completely straightforward is to be a bad writer....

This is absurd. There is not, and cannot be, one single measure of how good a writer you are. Nor does Guyton's standard make any sense. The standard of creativity is not always how the sentence unfolds. Sometimes it is how a sentence stands juxtaposed to another, or calls back to another. Sometimes the inevitable and obvious has a different sound in a different context. Sometimes the point is to state the inevitable and obvious; to force the reader to deal with it. Sometimes the writer is portraying something unsubtle and completely straightforward. Sometimes ... well, the thing of it is, you can extend the list indefinitely because the ability to do things with even very trite sentences is limited only by the creativity of the writer. And it is not exactly a 'subtle' thing to pop a twist on a sentence. When Sterne ends A Sentimental Journey with the famous line,

So that when I stretch’d out my hand I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s -

he wasn't being subtle at all, but quite boldly straightforward, telegraphing exactly what he meant, as sharply as if he hit you in the face with it.

It does not get any better. The second is that "Narrators are supposed to have an agenda" and the reason is that "Stories in which you can completely trust the narrator and/or the protagonist are uninteresting and unrealistic." Except when they aren't. It's really amusing how 'unrealistic' crept in there as if people can never be entirely trusted to tell a story, or as if people about whom stories are told never do entirely trustworthy things. This is to subjugate serious storytelling to artificial standards that have no business dominating it. This is supposed to be tied of course to fundamentalism, of which Guyton says:

For fundamentalists, it’s a scandalous betrayal of the text to say that the gospel writers had any kind of agenda other than dispassionately dictating whatever the proverbial angel whispered in their ears for them to copy down.

This is manifest falsehood. You can go back to The Fundamentals themselves and they clearly distinguish between what the human author was trying to do and what the Holy Spirit was doing; this is not what dictation-style theories of inspiration deny.

The same sort of falsehood pervades the next one, "It's all about the metaphors", in which Guyton says, "Metaphors are scary things to fundamentalists because they seem like a ploy to undermine the Bible’s authority." Err, no, fundamentalists are perfectly fine with metaphors and other figures of speech. Ask a fundamentalist some day whether Jesus was being literal when he said, "This is my body." This is not what fundamentalist literalism is. Guyton is confusing 'metaphors' with 'symbolism'; but even there, I have yet to meet a fundamentalist who did not have a rather sophisticated grasp of typologies. Fundamentalists do restrict the kinds of reading, and dislike allegorical readings -- which may be what Guyton really has in mind, given his examples; but this is hardly a distinctive feature of fundamentalism -- you have to get fairly 'high church' before finding people who think they aren't at least dangerous ways to turn the text into a wax nose. And none of this has much to do with metaphors. The misunderstanding is even worse when we get to the next one, "We make analogies":

In reading the Bible, I instinctively look for elements that might be analogies. In the New Testament, there are three major controversies that become important analogies for me in Biblical interpretation: Jesus’ Sabbath healing, the circumcision of the Gentiles, and eating ceremonially unclean foods. For fundamentalist Bible readers, these controversies are isolated incidents that have no bearing on how the church should handle analogous problems today.

And at this point I'm wondering if Guyton has ever read anything written from a fundamentalist perspective in his life. Intratextual analogy is one of the most important means by which serious fundamental interpretation is done; and the particular three controversies that Guyton notes are particularly poorly chosen, since a fundamentalist would obviously take the three to be analogous, and the general principle by which they are to be understood he would find in his interpretation of the letters of Paul. And fundamentalists are constantly drawing analogies to modern day; many of the weirder fundamentalist views out there are precisely based on taking some feature of modern life to be highly analogous to something in the text.

The next one, "We expect characters to be complicated," is equally problematic; Guyton's claim, "A fundamentalist doesn’t recognize Paul to have a character as such because Paul is simply a mouthpiece of God" is again sheer nonsense. Just get a fundamentalist pastor started on Paul, and you will hear a lot, and I mean a lot, about Paul's character. No doubt the character analysis will be very different from Guyton's. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And the special irony, of course, is that Guyton's depiction of the fundamentalist is utterly in violation of this supposed 'instinct': no complication here, just highly simplistic characterization.

The next one, "Poetry trumps grammar and history," he does manage to get right that fundamentalists take grammar and history to be key to the text, but then spoils it by implying that fundamentalists don't take etymology into account -- which is manifest falsehood, again. Fundamentalists take these 'poetic quirks' of words to be part of their grammatical-historical study. And, indeed, the nature of the text often requires it -- you have hapax legoumena and obscure terms. This is also where intratextuality comes in: one of the most common forms of fundamentalist Bible interpretation is the 'word study', in which you look at all the other passages in which a word is found so that you don't lose its many shades of meaning; and if you were doing a full such study, you would also look at cognates, at etymologically related words, and at how New Testament Greek translates Old Testament Hebrew or Aramaic.

I don't really have much to say about Guyton's seventh, "Every text has multiple voices," except to point out the obvious fact that dissenting voices can't be 'rebellious' unless you can clearly identify what it is against which they are rebelling, and that if Guyton's argument is, as it seems to be, that God would intend to write a text with rebellious dissenting voices and no single, unequivocal "intended meaning" that he has quite obviously contradicted himself.

Of course, there's not any real mystery about the thrust of the post; it is simply to insist that fundamentalists view the Bible in a way that makes it unsubtle, unrealistic, hyperliteralist, fragmented, simplistic, unpoetic, and simple-minded, and Guyton is much better than the lowly fundamentalist because his view of the Bible makes it as extraordinarily sophisticated as you get in an undergraduate class on novels. In reality, none of it makes much sense, and many of his claims about fundamentalism are certainly not generally true. Some of them are actually ironic. One of the longstanding fundamentalist complaints about Higher Criticism, for instance, is that it is only concerned with fragmented passages and does not recognize that every word, every phrase, every sentence, has a higher significance in context, so that Higher Criticism is an attempt to drain away the beauty and the sublimity of the whole of the text. There are lots of ways in which fundamentalist approaches can be criticized as limited, or as flattening the text; you won't figure them out from Guyton, though.

Chrysologus for Lent VI

Certainly fasting is the death of vices, the life of the virtues. Fasting is the peace of the body, the glory of the bodily members, the embellishment of life. Fasting is strength for minds, vigor for souls. Fasting is the safeguard of charity, the bulwark of chastity, the fortress of sanctity. Fasting is the school of morals, the teaching of teachings, the discipline of disciplines. Fasting is the saving companion along the churchly journey. Fasting is the invincible commander of the Christian army. But among these virtues fasting thrives, conquers, and triumphs only when it defends itself with mercy as its general.

Sermon 8, section 3.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Music on My Mind

Mary Lou Williams, "Praise the Lord". One of the best songs of one of the greatest jazz composers of the twentieth century.

Two Poem Re-Drafts

Discourse of St. Symeon

Who stands upon the ocean-shore
and looks out to horizon's end
may in its vastness somewhat share
but yet is bound upon the sand;
such see in truth the boundless sea
and yet the sea extends beyond;
unbounded sea they truly saw
and yet their seeing had a bound.
Yet, not content that they but see,
will others into vastness wade,
and what shall we of these folk say
who feel the waves roll strong and wet?
They too the endless ocean share
and yet are conscious and made full,
far more than any on the shore,
of fullness, depth, and overflow.
But will not those who wade out lose
their vision as the water weaves
a wall through which their eyes see less
of anything but wave on wave?
And to the one who simply swims
all but the ocean then will fade;
to such a soul the world then seems
to be but currents that enfold.
And so it is with glory bright!
And thus and so will be the lot
of those who by God's grace are brought
to God Himself, the Sea of Light.


Weird with wild wormwood
lightly bitter in my taste
the triune in my body
deeply interlaced
I am green as glory
bewitchment in my soul
I wait inside the glass
for the God to make me whole

Wild and unruly
danger to the sane
I stand upon the wasteland
I wait for crystal rain
raindrops fall down slowly
sweet and cold as ice
pure heaven interfuses
I louche to paradise

Chrysologus for Lent V

Brothers, when fasting is not fed on the food of compassion it gets hungry; when it is not given to drink from the cup of mercy it gets thirsty. Fasting gets cold and gives up when the coat of almsgiving does not cover it, when the clothing of kindness does not protect it.

Sermon 8, section 2.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

'The women are up to something'

I informed the Senior Proctor of my intention to oppose Mr. Truman's degree. He consulted the Registrar to get me informed on procedure. The Vice-Chancellor was informed; I was cautiously asked if I had got up a party. I had not; but a fine House was whipped up to vote for the honour. The dons at St. John's were simply told 'The women are up to something in Convocation; we have to go and vote them down.' In Worcester, in All Soul's, in New College, however, consciences were greatly exercised, as I have heard. A reason was found to satisfy them: It would be wrong to try to PUNISH Mr. Truman! I must say I rather like St. John's.

G. E. M. Anscombe, "Mr. Truman's Degree" (1958).

ADDED LATER: The really sad thing, of course, is that this is still how academics work.