Saturday, March 22, 2014

Edith Stein on David Hume

Hume can be overcome only on his own ground, or, more precisely, the ground on which he was trying to carry out his own considerations but which methodologically he himself was unable to secure sufficiently. He started out with nature as it presents itself to the eyes of the naive contemplator. In this nature there's one causative linkage, one necessary sequence of happening. He wanted to investigate consciousness of this linkage: what kind of consciousness it is and whether it is rational. All that kept him from finding the evident coherence that he sought was a half-baked theory of the nature of consciousness and especially of experience. It misled him on the conclusion as well, to explain away the phenomena from which he started out and without which his whole way of setting up the issue would become incomprehensible.

Edith Stein, "Sentient Causality," in Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities, Baseheart and Sawicki, trs., Collected Works vol. 7, ICS Publications (Washington, D.C.: 2000), p. 4.

Though the Dun Fox, or Wild Hyaena, Calls

by Thomas Hood

There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave--under the deep deep sea,
Or in the wide desert where no life is found,
Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;
No voice is hushed--no life treads silently,
But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,
That never spoke, over the idle ground:
But in green ruins, in the desolate walls
Of antique palaces, where Man hath been,
Though the dun fox, or wild hyaena, calls,
And owls, that flit continually between,
Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,
There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.

Chrysologus for Lent XXI

What is at issue in fasting is not that one fasts, but that one does it willingly. And what benefit is fasting for you, since you undertake the fast unwillingly? Fasting is the singular plow of holiness: it tills the heart, it eradicates sins, it uproots offenses, it stamps out vices, it sows charity, it nourishes the crop, and it furnishes a harvest of innocence.

Therefore, Christ's disciples, completely and firmly placed in the field of holiness and gathering handfuls of virtues, now providing a new kind of bread, are unable to engage in the old kind of fasts that are bragged about verbally, promoted with a pallid complexion, advertised by disfigurement, and pleasing to human eyes, but not to divine ones.

Sermon 31, section 2.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Supererogation and Consilience

Something I have been thinking about recently is the analogy between supererogation and consilience.

'Consilience' is a term that goes back to William Whewell's philosophy of sciences; he argued that one of the signs of progress in science was the consilience of inductions:

It is true, the explanation of one set of facts may be of the same nature as the explanation of the other class: but then, that the cause explains both classes, gives it a very different claim upon our attention and assent from that which it would have if it explained one class only. The very circumstance that the two explanations coincide, is a most weighty presumption in their favour. It is the testimony of two witnesses in behalf of the hypothesis; and in proportion as these two witnesses are separate and independent, the conviction produced by their agreement is more and more complete. When the explanation of two kinds of phenomena, distinct, and not apparently connected, leads us to the same cause, such a coincidence does give a reality to the cause, which it has not while it merely accounts for those appearances which suggested the supposition.

Whewell took this to be the proper explanation of Newton's First Rule of Philosophizing, "We are not to admit other causes of natural things than such as both are true, and sufiice for explaining their phenomena," and, in particular, the 'true cause' part of it:

Newton’s Rule then, to avoid mistakes, might be thus expressed: That “we may, provisorily, assume such hypothetical cause as will account for any given class of natural phenomena; but that when two different classes of facts lead us to the same hypothesis, we may hold it to be a true cause.”

In a striking image he uses elsewhere, Whewell says that in consilience two different realms of inquiry 'jump together'. (As a side note, I think a great many works discussing consilience get Whewell wrong on a key point here. Whewell holds that Newton's First Rule, understood in consilient terms, provides a conclusive test and "will rarely or never" mislead us. People often point out that the very theory he uses as his example, Newton's theory of gravity, has since been superseded, and thus that his claims for consilience were excessive. But this idea, besides absurdly treating Whewell like a child incapable of recognizing an obvious possibility, assumes an account of what it means for a theory to be superseded that is completely inconsistent with Whewell's own. Whewell doesn't think consilience establishes a theory to be definitive in the sense of not being able to be improved upon. That wouldn't even make sense in Whewell's account of scientific discovery. What he means is that it is right to the extent that one is considering the classes of phenomena in question. In Whewellian terms, what happened when Einstein replaced Newton was not that the latter theory was proven wrong but that the latter's rightness was proven to be limited to certain conditions. There are no ruptures in Whewell's account of scientific progress; everything established properly remains true forever even though it may be so only in a limited way and may itself need to be explained. The problem arises in part because the people discussing Whewell have a flat conception of scientific realism that Whewell does not share: on Whewell's account, things can be true to a limited extent or to a degree of approximation without being false, because that's the regime we are always actually forced to accept in science, where our measurements, equations, and the like are never to perfect precision or without condition. Even if Whewell were wrong about this, his claims about a theory or hypothesis being made definitive or conclusive have to be understood in light of his own views on this point.)

The root idea of supererogation, of course, is paying more than is due; in moral terms, one does something good that is more than duty requires. Even characterizing this is often quite difficult in a number of modern moral theories, to such an extent that one can find people denying that there are any such supererogatory acts -- if you do something 'beyond what duty requires' you are either doing something immoral or something morally indifferent. This can all be summed up in the paradox of supererogation:

(1) Supererogatory acts are morally better than acts merely fulfilling duty, which are otherwise the morally best acts, and so are the acts that are morally best.
(2) Supererogatory acts are optional.
(3) Acts fulfilling duties are not optional.
(4) To do what is morally best cannot be optional.

Or, in other words, they are morally even better than doing one's duty, but not doing them is not morally worse than not doing one's duty, or even morally bad at all. The force of (4) is somewhat obscured in this summary; the basic idea is that our best moral reasons will favor doing what is morally best, so there will be at least an all-things-considered requirement to do whatever happens to be morally best. It's still wrong, but my purpose here isn't to talk about the paradox of supererogation.

One can see something of the analogy between supererogation and consilience by the fact that you could characterize consilience as being a case where a theory or hypothesis does supererogatory explanatory work. But I think we can say more about this by looking at how we might think of supererogation as a sort of practical consilience.

Obligations or duties are usually described by a deontic logic. I have suggested before that deontic logics should really be seen as logics characterizing solutions to problems -- that is, they are suited for characterizing what is required and allowed for a solution to a problem -- and that it is this very fact that makes them suitable for talking about obligation and permissibility. A moral duty can be understood as something that must be taken into account in a solution to a problem of moral significance (the 'problem' here may just be the problem of what to decide given the circumstances).

What would supererogation be, then? I would suggest that the most obvious possibility is that it supererogation would occur when, in facing a problem of moral significance, one resolves the problem and also other problems. This is not a complete characterization. But let us say for the moment you are engaging in a quasi-supererogatory act if you not only perform your duty in resolving a moral problem but do so in a way that resolves other problems of moral significance.

What more is necessary to make it fully supererogatory? If someone rejected that any kind of quasi-supererogatory act could ever be genuinely supererogatory, on what grounds would they do so? I think all such rejections would involve the assumption that all problems of moral significance are equally significant. (This is related to what in the literature on supererogation is often called the good-ought tie-up.)

This makes sense, if you think of it: if you have to solve, in some sense, all relevant moral problems at once, then there's no room for supererogation. Typical moral positions that reject the possibility of supererogation, like Kant-style deontologies or many utilitarianisms, do so because they essentially hold that there is only one moral problem (e.g., what is in accord with the categorical imperative) or that the solution that must be chosen is that which provides the optimal solution across all moral problems, understood in some unified way as one problem (e.g., achieving the best consequences).

Further, if you look at atypical variations of these that do allow supererogation, you find they also hold that moral problems are not reducible to one moral problem, and that they do not allow of any univocal measure that puts them all on the same level. For instance, John Stuart Mill's version of utilitarianism is an atypical kind of utilitarianism that not only allows for supererogation but also has supererogation as one of the central elements of the theory. This is possible because in Mill's Art of Life no one is required to maximize good consequences. People often fail to grasp this point: Mill explicitly rejects the idea that the principle of utility obligates in and of itself. Rather, the principle of utility structures all of practical reason (which is concerned with the good) and does so in three departments: Aesthetics, Policy, and Duty. An action becomes a duty only through being confirmed by multiple applications of the principle of utility. Roughly, something can become a duty when it not only contributes to the greatest happiness of the greatest number but does so in such a way that it contributes to the greatest happiness of the greatest number for us to punish those who don't do it. This is only one kind of moral problem, though.

Mill has a very good example, in his essay on Bentham, highlighting the fact that there are different kinds of moral problems in Mill's account. Brutus, the great Roman patriot, was once acting as magistrate, during which a couple of criminals came before him for treason. There was no question, nor room for doubt, that they were guilty of trying to overthrow the Republic through violence. There was also no question what the law required for their crime: death. And no one doubted what Brutus's duty, considered simply as a magistrate, was. So he did his duty and condemned them to death. The two criminals were his sons. And Mill does not deny that Brutus did his duty; but he notes that we can still reasonably say that his act was not admirable or lovable. There was something inhuman about it. Living a sympathetic, beautiful life is a different set of problems from living a life according to duty. One could, if one wanted, hold that only the problem of how to live according to duty was a strictly moral problem -- but it doesn't change the fact that the other problems are genuine practical problems, important ones, and even can be considered moral problems in a broader sense. Thus Mill's moral theory has plenty of room for supererogation: what would be ideal would be decisions that are moral (in the strict sense), useful, and beautiful. Forced to a choice, duty or morality in the strictest sense wins: these are higher priority problems. And you have no general duty to do beautiful and useful things. But part of what we take to be a good life is not just a life of duty but also a light of beauty and effectiveness, and thus actions that solve not just the problem of how to do our duty but also the problems of how to live beautifully and effectively are better than actions that only solve the problem of duty.

The way in which supererogation, framed in these terms, is like consilience should be more clear now by restating what a supererogatory action is in these terms: an action is supererogatory if in solving problems of moral significance that have priority, it also solves problems of moral significance that do not have this priority. (Priority is not necessarily a matter of importance but simply the kind of necessity that makes for obligation.) Thus supererogatory actions solve moral problems in such a way as to solve different kinds of moral problems, making them "jump together" in one solution.

There are many more things that could be said, but this post is getting a bit long.

Chrysologus for Lent XX

Pharisee, admit your sin, so that you might be able to come to the table of Christ; so that you might have Christ as your Bread, and he the Bread might be broken in forgiveness for your sins; so that Christ might become your Cup to be poured out in remission of your offenses. Pharisee, eat with sinners so that you can eat with Christ. Acknowledge that you are a sinner, so that Christ might eat with you. Enter with sinners into the feast of your Lord, so that you can be a sinner no more. Enter the house of mercy with the forgiveness of Christ, so that with your kind of righteousness you may not be shut out in punishment from the house of mercy.

Sermon 30, section 4.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wilson's "Oo, Those Awful Orcs"

John Wright has posted some comments about Edmund Wilson's notorious review of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in 1956. All worth reading. Edmund Wilson was one of the most influential -- some would say the most influential -- literary critics of the twentieth century; he is also usually considered a bit uneven. Colm Toibin says somewhere that he succeeded through the habit of being right some of the time. But he was very popular with the "I read The New Yorker" set. In many ways he was the fashion-setter for that set.

The review gives a good example of what a reviewer should not do -- lots of examples of things reviewers should not do, actually, but especially of the most important: Wilson puts his own private tastes in place of a critical taste considering the general tastes of enthusiastic readers. There's no doubt Wilson was being sincere, and not merely out for a sneer and snide comment; he certainly wasn't out to write what will likely become his single most famous review due to people repeatedly taking it out and laughing at it. But he doesn't do himself any favors, from his repeated misspelling of Gandalf's name to failing to recognize the merits of the book despite explicitly recognizing a bevy of competent critics who were already insisting on them to the cases where he is clearly going more for something clever than something accurate to say (and thus instead comes across like the old comedy buffoonery of trying to frighten off bad guys by pretending to know karate). Some of Wilson's more awful comments:

The reviewer has just read the whole thing aloud to his seven-year old daughter, who has been through The Hobbit countless times, beginning it again the moment she has finished, and whose interest has been held by its more prolix successors. One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child.

[One is perhaps more puzzled at the strangeness of a book so pedantic it holds the interest of a seven-year-old child. --ed.]
It is essentially a children’s book – a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the “juvenile” market, the author has indulged himself in developing the fantasy for its own sake; and it ought to be said at this point, before emphasizing its inadequacies as literature, that Dr. Tolkien makes few claims for his fairy romance.
It is indeed the tale of a Quest, but, to the reviewer, an extremely unrewarding one. The hero has no serious temptations; is lured by no insidious enchantments, perplexed by few problems. What we get is a simple confrontation – in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama – of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote and alien villain with the plucky little home-grown hero.
At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph, who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all.
The ring is at last got rid of by being dropped into a fiery crater, and the kingdom of Sauron “topples ” in a brief and banal earthquake that sets fire to everything and burns it up, and so releases the author from the necessity of telling the reader what exactly was so terrible there.
Now, how is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash.

Chrysologus for Lent XIX

Greedy one, make purses for yourself, make them according to the orders of God, because the Divine Majesty looks favorably on your prayers. But make for yourself purses by making contributions, because whatever the poor person receives, our heavenly Father safeguards. And where does he store it? In heaven. And lest perhaps you regret having lost the interest on it, as it were, you will receive on hundred-fold in heavenly interest whatever you send on to heaven with the poor person bearing it. Worldly interest pays one on a hundred, God receives one and pays out a hundred.

And still human beings do not wish to have a contract with God....O man, entrust to God what God has given to you; when the Benefactor wishes to be in debt, it is because he wants to make a larger repayment.

Sermon 25, section 3.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Music on My Mind

Kalafina, "Magia". (I actually like this version a little bit better, but embedding is disabled for it.) Kalafina is a very pop girl band as only Japan can make pop girl bands; they are most famous for doing theme and background music for anime series. Girl-band anime music is not my usual cup of tea, but this one is the theme from Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a beautiful, haunting, and in some parts very, very dark Faust-inspired story. If you're interested in the English, this English-language cover captures it pretty well -- the translation is loose, but it very carefully preserves all the major images. Like practically all anime theme songs with lyrics it pretty much tells the entire story of the series but not in a way that would lead you to expect the story to unfold as it actually does.

Chrysologus for Lent XIII

God gives himself to you as a man so that you can bear it, because you are unable to endure him as he is.

Sermon 23, section 1.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Hume's Treatise 3.2

There was a post at "3 Quarks Daily" recently on Hume's account of promises. One thing that is worth noting, however, is that all of Part II of Book III of Hume's Treatises (he discusses promises in 3.2.5) is a treatise on the natural foundations of jurisprudence. This is quite clear, not only from the topics discussed, but also from the fact that Hume regularly uses terms and addresses topics that were standard in jurisprudence texts.

Thus when Hume talks about justice, what he means by 'justice' is respect for private property, or, from the other side, property rights (his major examples are restoring a loan and abstaining from taking someone else's property). From this perspective, it is not at all surprising that he insists that justice is an artificial virtue that depends on human convention and public interest (3.2.1); he then goes on to discuss how rules governing property develop and why we end up taking them to be a moral matter at all (3.2.2); after which follows an account of what the rules of property are (3.2.3); then we get the need for mutual exchange and commerce or the transference of property by consent (3.2.4); and the discussion of property follows immediately on that (3.2.5) before finishing up the discussion of justice with some confirming arguments (3.2.6) and going on to discuss allegiance to government (3.2.7-3.2.10), international law (3.2.11), and the foundation of marriage law (3.2.12). So what is Hume doing in the discussion of promises? Well, it occurs literally in the midst of a discussion of property, right after the section establishing the need to transfer property by consent. And how do we transfer property by consent? The answer to that question makes everything clear. By 'promise' Hume means 'contract'.

And everything Hume says in the section makes perfect sense in light of that fact. Contracts are not established by mere resolution or desire to perform a service, but by expressing that one wills to take on an obligation, which one uses the contract to create. Contracts do not express any one act of mind or single action, and one's sense that one should follow a contract is generally exhausted by one's sense that it is an obligation. There are two kinds of commerce affecting transfer of property by consent: disinterested, which is that among friends and family, and requiring no contract; and interested, in which, while not necessarily caring about you at all I exchange some good or service in order to get some good or service. To establish the latter and distinguish it from the former, we invent special forms of words to show that both parties seriously expect some benefit from the contract, and that each seriously intends to uphold the responsibility given to each in the contract, on pain of no longer being trusted in this kind of exchange if they fail. It takes very little experience with contracts to recognize just how useful they are, and thus they receive the sanction of society in general and the moral force that involves. And that is Hume's account of 'promises'. He is talking about contracts.

The first six sections of Part II discuss what Hume calls 'the laws of nature' -- by which he means the most basic structures constituting human society -- which are three: "the stability of possession, of its transference by consent, and of the performance of promises" or, as we would put it, Property, Exchange (or Trade), and Contract. All three of these are in some sense more fundamental for Hume than the next big topic, Government, and do not presuppose it; all human societies have some basic principles of property, exchange, and contract, but Hume denies that all human societies have government. (He thinks, however, that government is so advantageous, and sometimes inevitable, that it will necessarily be common.) And he goes on to use his account of promises in order to attack one of the most prominent early modern accounts of the origin of government: the social contract theory.

Truth is Uniform

Today is the feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Doctor the Church. From Catechetical Lecture 18:

The root of all good works is the hope of the Resurrection; for the expectation of the recompense nerves the soul to good works. For every labourer is ready to endure the toils, if he sees their reward in prospect; but when men weary themselves for nought, their heart soon sinks as well as their body. A soldier who expects a prize is ready for war, but no one is forward to die for a king who is indifferent about those who serve under him, and bestows no honours on their toils. In like manner every soul believing in a Resurrection is naturally careful of itself; but, disbelieving it, abandons itself to perdition. He who believes that his body shall remain to rise again, is careful of his robe, and defiles it not with fornication; but he who disbelieves the Resurrection, gives himself to fornication, and misuses his own body, as though it were not his own. Faith therefore in the Resurrection of the dead, is a great commandment and doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church; great and most necessary, though gainsaid by many, yet surely warranted by the truth. Greeks contradict it , Samaritans disbelieve it, heretics mutilate it; the contradiction is manifold, but the truth is uniform.

St. Cyril was technically semi-Arian (despite attempts to claim otherwise, this is really not in doubt), not in the sense that he disagreed with Nicene theology (he rejects Arianism and never says anything against Nicene theology), but in the sense that he seems to have favored compromises to make peace with people who were uncomfortable with the Nicene theology of homoousios, which was looked at by many as an unclear theological innovation breaking with the tradition of the Church. The Council of Nicaea had occurred in 325. It did not bring peace and clarity, but spread considerable confusion. 'Homoousios', the 'consubstantial' of the creed, was not a widespread term; a great many bishops, including many whose orthodoxy is not in dispute, thought that it was not helpful. Cyril became a bishop largely because he was a member of this group, and it is very noticeable that the corresponding Catechetical Lecture, despite being thoroughly orthodox, does not mention the homoousios at all.

A council was held in 360 in Constantinople which almost went Arian, but was pulled back from it by some complicated ecclesiastical politics. It did, however, protest the homoousios in moderate terms:

But since the term 'ousia', which was used by the fathers in a very simple and intelligible sense, but not being understood by the people, has been a cause of offense, we have thought proper to reject it, as it is not contained even in the sacred writings; and that no mention of it should be made in future, inasmuch as the holy Scriptures have nowhere mentioned the substance of the Father and of the Son.

This council had widespread acceptance. What seems to have brought it down ultimately was that a number of Arian-leaning bishops seem to have taken it as a license for much more aggressive action, which started pushing moderates like Cyril into direct opposition. When another council was held in Constantinople in 381, it went in favor of the homoousios, and it is the Creed of that council that is actually recited as the Nicene Creed. St. Cyril seems to have backed it completely this time; indeed, if some stories are to be believed, he is the one who actually wrote it -- the Creed of Constantinople according to some stories may well have been the baptismal confession of Jerusalem with the homoousios added. It's unclear (at best) whether this was actually the case, since we don't actually know how the Creed of the First Council of Constantinople came about (indeed, some have argued that the Creed of the First Council of Constantinople was actually not given by that Council, although the later Council of Chalcedon explicitly affirms it as such). But St. Cyril had certainly shifted his position.

Things did not get less confusing; most people ignored the First Council of Constantinople for quite some time afterward, although the council did mark a strong and permanent shift in the theological atmosphere (of which it may have been either cause or symptom). But Cyril's fight was coming to an end, and he died in 387.

Chrysologus for Lent XII

Fasting, brothers, we know is the citadel of God, the camp of Christ, the bulwark of the spirit, the standard of faith, the sign of chastity, the trophy of sanctity.

Sermon 12, section 4.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Tim O'Neill on Bruno

The recent Cosmos had a segment on Giordano Bruno that has caused something of a tempest where history of science intersects popularization of the history of science. Tim O'Neill has a guest post on the subject for Thony Christie (who had given a general overview of the issues here, with links):

If the writers of the series were actually interested in the real history of the origins of scientific thought, there are many people whose stories would have been far more worthy of telling than Bruno – people who actually were proto-scientists. The writers of the show, Stephen Soter and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, seem to have known enough about Bruno to know they could not present him as a scientist and DeGrasse Tyson’s narration does mention that he was “no scientist” at one point. But they delicately skim over the fact that the guy was, to our way of thinking, a complete mystical loon. In his defence of the criticism the Bruno sequence has since attracted Soter notes that several other early science figures also pursued studies that we find abjectly unscientific, such as Newton’s obsessions with alchemy and apocalyptic calculation. But the difference is that Newton and Kepler pursued those ideas as well as studies that were based on real empirical science, whereas Bruno’s hermetical mysticism, sacred geometry and garbled and largely invented ancient Egyptian religion were all of his studies – he did no actual science at all.

As with pretty much everything O'Neill writes, the whole thing is worth reading. Of course the obstacle to reasoned discussion makes itself known in the first comment on the post:

If there are any irreconcilable differences between the cosmos’ Bruno or the real Bruno, the fact still remains that he was burned for what he professed or believed. He was not burned for any other crime than blasphemy. Your whole article is a wash, you can not deliberately lighten the cruelty of the religiously convicted.

I think it would be news to both Christie and O'Neill that they are deliberately lightening any kind of cruelty! But this is a constant difficulty in historical matters: human beings have a tendency to reason by association, which is often handy as a practical matter, or for initial approximation to be examined by further study, but is also often a good way to slide off into the deep end if it's never held to stronger standards of evidence, and will get you entirely in kooksville if you use it as an excuse for not paying attention to counterarguments. Which is what we have here, since O'Neill explicitly pointed out the problem in his last paragraph (emphasis added):

Of course, anyone who points out that Bruno is a rather ridiculous icon for atheists, given his kooky mystical views and magical practices is usually ignored. And anyone who has the temerity to point out that he was executed for purely religious ideas and not any speculation about multiple worlds or a non-finite cosmos is usually (bizarrely) told they are somehow justifying his horrific execution. As I’ve often noted, for people who call themselves rationalists, many of my fellow atheists can be less than rational. Unfortunately, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, Steven Soter and Seth MacFarlane’s silly Bruno cartoon will definitely not help in that regard.


From Anthony Jensen's IEP article on Nietzsche's philosophy of history:

To Burckhardt’s and Ritschl’s consternation, Nietzsche tried to co-opt the Schopenhauerian aesthetic-metaphysical mysticism in his first ‘historical’ work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872). “But our Nietzsche!” Ritschl would write to Wilhelm Vischer, the man who a few years before hired Nietzsche at Basel, “It’s remarkable how in one person two souls live next to each other. On the one side, the strictest method of academic scientific research…on the other this fantastically-overreaching, over enthusiastic, beat-you-senseless, Wagnerian-Schopenhauerian art-mystery-religion-crap [Kunstmysterienreligionsschwärmerei]! […] What really makes me mad is his impiety against his true mother, who had suckled him at her breast: philology” (KSA 15, 46f).

Schwarmerei, I know, is the German counterpart for the old early modern derogatory sense of 'enthusiasm': it suggests an overheated imagination. So Kunstmysterienreligionsschwärmerei would indicate the madness of one who treats art as a mystery religion.

Chrysologus for Lent XI

Since we see that the springtime of the fast and the season of spiritual warfare have arrived, as soldiers of Christ, after ridding ourselves of any listlessness of body and soul, let us set forth to the field of the virtues,, so that the limbs that have been softened by the leisure of the winter may be strengthened by the military training of heaven. We have given a year to our body, let us give some days to our soul. We have spent time and time again on ourselves; let us devote a portion of time to the Creator; let us who have lived entirely for the world live for a little while for God.

Let us put to the side our concerns at home and remain in the camp of the Church; let us keep vigil in the battle line of Christ and not seek the slumber of our beds.

Sermon 12, section 1.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fortnightly Book, March 16

The fortnightly book this time around is Goethe's Faust, in a translation by Alice Raphael. Faust seems to have been a lifelong project of Goethe's. The earliest development of it (that we know of) is what is usually know as the Urfaust; it was a version of the basic Faust story that Goethe wrote in his twenties; it was never published and only rediscovered long afterward. The world was first introduced to Faust as Goethe conceived him in Faust: A Fragment, published in 1790. In 1808 we get the first full version of Faust: The First Part of the Tragedy. Goethe reworked it, however, finishing this project somewhere around 1828, and then went on to write the second part, which he finished very shortly before his death. The full work was only published posthumously; and, indeed, it is still the case today that when people talk about Goethe's Faust, they usually mean Part One; this is the only portion I have.

Faust is repeatedly characterized by Goethe as a tragedy. While it would be impossible to expect the multi-faceted Goethe to follow slavishly any neo-Aristotelian canons, he almost certainly understands this term as Aristotelian, although under his own interpretation. Goethe knew Aristotle's Poetics, corresponded with Schiller on it in 1797, translated the work into German, and wrote a commentary on it. Like Aristotle, Goethe sees catharsis as an important element of tragedy; but the role of the passions of fear and pity is secondary on his interpretation of the idea: catharsis is primarily for him a reconciling climax in the play itself that resolves the period of fear and pity leading up to it, and, so to speak, re-balances the imbalances created by these passions. We do have to be careful, since 'tragedy' for Goethe is a word covering all serious drama, but the structure of serious drama as Goethe understands it is very certainly a (broadly) Aristotelian structure.

Schiller and he collaborated on an essay on epic and dramatic poetry that takes its start from the Poetics -- both Goethe and Schiller liked Aristotle's account of tragedy and agreed that the most serious gap in Aristotle's account as we have it is the lack of his full theory of epic. In their essay, they note that epic and tragedy have much in common, including the need for a subject that is human, significant, and emotional, and characterize the difference between the two by saying that epic deals with limited human activity, while tragedy deals with limited human suffering. The thrust of an epic is outward: battles, journeys, and the like. The thrust of a tragedy is inward.

It is, no doubt, the inward tendency of the drama that attracted Alice Raphael to it. Raphael was a famous student of Carl Jung, and lectured and wrote extensively about Goethe's Faust from the perspective of Jungian psychology.

I will be reading the work in a Heritage Press (New York) edition from 1959. It is illustrated with lithographic copies of lithographs by Eugène Delacroix. The significance of this might perhaps be gleaned from the fact that Delacroix gets equal billing on the front cover with Goethe. Delacroix illustrated the work in 1828, and Goethe was very enthusiastic about the illustrations, which he said sometimes surpassed his own conception of the scenes. And people have generally followed Goethe's assessment, taking Delacroix's illustrations of the work to be one of the high-water marks of book illustration as an art. You can see some of them at WikiPaintings (scroll down and click 'lithography').

A Poem Draft


Long ago in a dream
I saw your face, just a gleam;
it was light, it was hope,
in the dark.

Long ago I had heard
a gentle song without words,
soft and low, spreading hope
in the dark.

Now I wander the earth
and I wonder life's worth
when the fight never ends
save with defeat again.
But hope grows where there is love,
where you are, and God above,
so I rise, so I fight,
though I must lose again.

Long ago in a dream
I heard your voice -- bright it seemed
in the dark.

Chesterton on Fables

This is the immortal justification of the Fable: that we could not teach the plainest truths so simply without turning men into chessmen. We cannot talk of such simple things without using animals that do not talk at all. Suppose, for a moment, that you turn the wolf into a wolfish baron, or the fox into a foxy diplomatist. You will at once remember that even barons are human, you will be unable to forget that even diplomatists are men. You will always be looking for that accidental good-humour that should go with the brutality of any brutal man; for that allowance for all delicate things, including virtue, that should exist in any good diplomatist. Once put a thing on two legs instead of four and pluck it of feathers and you cannot help asking for a human being, either heroic, as in the fairy tales, or un-heroic, as in the modern novels.

But by using animals in this austere and arbitrary style as they are used on the shields of heraldry or the hieroglyphics of the ancients, men have really succeeded in handing down those tremendous truths that are called truisms. If the chivalric lion be red and rampant, it is rigidly red and rampant; if the sacred ibis stands anywhere on one leg, it stands on one leg for ever. In this language, like a large animal alphabet, are written some of the first philosophic certainties of men.

G. K. Chesterton, from his introduction to V. S. Vernon Jones's translation of Aesop's Fables. And he's right, of course: fables, far from being expressions of a simple intelligence, involve a very sophisticated degree of abstraction. It is the ideas that are simple, not the thought put into them; the ideas are simple precisely because a great deal of thought has abstracted away the nonessentials and tagged the essentials with some imaginative picture.