Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena


Opening Passage:

In the city-states of Tuscany the citizens--Popolani--businessmen, master craftsmen and the professional class had already in the Middle Ages demanded and won the right to take part in the government of the republic side by side with the nobles--the Gentiluomini. In Siena they ahd obtained a third of the seats in the high Council as early as the twelfth century. In spite of the fact that the different parties and rival groups within the parties were in constant and often violent disagreement, and in spite of the frequent wars with Florence, Siena's neighbour and most powerful competitor, prosperity reigned within the city walls.

Summary: Fourteenth-century Italy is a world falling apart, splitting Italian against Italian and both against the French, and, eventually, splitting even the Church against the Church. It is not a period in which one would expect a single woman, neither a queen nor a wealthy woman, to have a profound impact; and yet Catherine Benincasa, neither royal nor wealthy, had just such a profound impact on the day, slowing the decline, moderating the violence, setting up the first definite steps toward peace. Undset's biography gives us this story, heavily saturated with Catherine's own words, but also with a sympathetic sense of her motives and a recognition that a world which had undergone two world wars and myriad smaller ones might perhaps need to learn something from a woman who knew how to face a world falling apart. And this last is true however strange we may find facets of Catherine's life; after all, as Undset notes, her contemporaries found her difficult to understand for many of the same reasons people in our age would say they find her difficult to understand.

Catherine's life essentially consists of four things, the Eucharist, religious experiences, correspondence with others, and the politics of the day, and for her they are all interconnected. Political division arises from a failure to express the love found in the Eucharist; her many religious experiences are all connected to the Eucharist as their root; her correspondence with others, guided by her religious experiences, is an extension of the love and the strength she derives from the Eucharist; and by her correspondence she begins to reknit what politics has torn apart. In all these things she displays a perceptive intelligence and an indomitable will; one of the things I like about the book is that it shows how an extremely stubborn Italian girl could become the saint she became, with the extreme stubbornness not vanishing but being transformed into something different. Grace perfects nature not just in general ways, but by turning our quirks and even in our failings into something beneficial. Outside of occasional exceptions, an excitable sinner becomes an excitable saint, a choleric sinner a choleric saint, a stubborn sinner a stubborn saint, a scheming sinner a scheming saint -- but although we can use the same adjective on both sides, there is something fundamentally different in its meaning, a change in the very structure and form of its expression.

One of the things that is difficult to wrap one's mind around is how much Catherine accomplished in her short life. She died at the age of thirty-three. While there was a great deal to her life before she was twenty-three, for practical purposes this can be seen as the start of her full mission. It is difficult to avoid the impression that from this point onward the clock was ticking. Ten years. But in that period she saved souls gone astray, protected Siena from sack, reconciled warring princes, shifted the views of Popes, and changed countless lives for the better.

And it did not end there, for she became a teacher for the ages. St. Catherine of Siena was given the title, Doctor of the Church, by Paul VI in 1970, years after the book was written and Undset's death. But it could come as no surprise to anyone who read Undset's account of her life. It is very difficult to write about incalculable good; that is why most hagiographies seem somewhat flat in comparison with other kinds of biographical writing, however good they may be on their own terms. But Undset manages it extraordinarily well. If St. Catherine is a Teacher of the Church, Undset is a worthy teaching assistant.

Giovanni di Paolo The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena,

MrsDarwin has a good reflection on the book over at her blog.

Favorite Passage: There are a number that are good. Here is one:

There is nothing in the experience of man which shows that the raw material of human nature has ever changed. It is eternally dragged down by our desire for the things which escape our grasp, or if we manage to grasp some of them we find that we are still not satisfied. Satisfied desire produces new desire until old age puts a stop to the chase, and death ends all. We are shown frequent glimpses of our nature which remind us of our origin, and in whose image we are created. From the image of God in us we have creative energy, the spring of unselfish love--unselfish in spite of the shadow of egoism which is inseparable from all our impulses; the longing to create our world to an ordered pattern, to live according to the law, and to see our ideals of justice realised. (p. 332)

Recommendation: It's a fairly straightfoward biography-hagiography, told well, making St. Catherine, not the most obviously accessible saint, vivid and approachable. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Radio Greats: What the Whiskey Drummer Heard (Gunsmoke)

The original idea for Gunsmoke at CBS was a crossing of mysteries and Westerns: Philip Marlowe in the Old West. The idea morphed a bit in development, but a constant throughout was an insistence on making it an adult Western. Most Westerns on the radio were kids' shows -- along the lines of Hopalong Cassidy or The Lone Ranger. The idea with Gunsmoke was to create a Western series that didn't sugarcoat the Old West. And that was the result. It's never explicit, but there are plenty of clues that Miss Kitty is a prostitute and that Marshal Matt Dillon, while on the side of the law, is very much like some of the men he hunts down. And he is not some white-hat hero always there in the knick of time. Sometimes he fails. The series also regularly handled hard issues: mob violence, domestic abuse, rape. Dangerous territory, but it handled it well: Gunsmoke is easily one of the top shows of the Golden Age.

The radio show ran from 1952 to 1961. Of course, most people today know of Gunsmoke from the television version, which ran from 1955 to 1975 for an astounding 635 episodes. Many of them were original to TV, but quite a few were adaptations of radio scripts, especially in the early years. The TV show had a different cast -- William Conrad, who played Dillon on the radio, to much acclaim, didn't have the look they wanted (it's generally thought that his weight was the factor). James Arness got the part instead. This arguably came near to killing the TV series -- Conrad's Dillon was iconic, and many fans of the radio show refused to watch the television series. But the stories made good TV as well as good radio, and the series survived. It was also the twilight of the age of radio and the dawn of the age of television; it was perhaps inevitable that the television series would outlast its originally more popular radio counterpart and rival.

Of all modern genres, the Western is perhaps the one that is most thoroughly concerned with the concept of Civilization. Most major tropes in the genre are about the building of civilization, or about protecting it from the greed, brutality, and ignorance that constantly threaten to bring it down. One episode of Gunsmoke that is exactly in this line is "What the Whiskey Drummer Heard". Unlike many stories, it doesn't give us any inkling of what to do about the struggle between civilized life and barbarism, but it puts the contrast in perhaps the most stark terms: at its root, it's a struggle between Reason and Unreason. Marshal Dillon has to watch out when a whiskey salesman tells him about overhearing men plotting his death. It has all the trappings of a mystery, but it is handled in a way very different from what you would find in a mystery tale -- and in a way that fits the Western genre to a T.

You can listen to "What the Whiskey Drummer Heard" at Old Time Radio Westerns.

The same script, with minor variation, was used for an episode of the TV series a few years later.

Internal Recollection of Eternal Love

Without supposing that there is, inborn in the human soul, a whole system of notions and forms of thought—a whole world, in short, of all possible ideas—may there not have been imparted to it from above a higher gift, which, naturally, is only called into action simultaneously with the awakening of the rest of the human mind, or of the mind generally? If so, would it not appear to the soul in the form of a memory; and, in a certain sense, be really such, though, indeed, not so much a memory of the past as of eternity? This is a question which, advanced in this sense, can not, I think, be absolutely negatived; not that any essential necessity or actual ground exists for it; but that, carefully guarded by certain limitations, it is an hypothesis that may, without hesitation, be assumed or conceded. Can it, in truth, well be doubted that every spiritual being, created by infinite love, has had imparted to him a share in the source of eternal love, which is to remain his forever, or so long, at least, as the connection with the supreme source of his being is not violently broken and rent asunder?

Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of Language, Morrison, tr., p. 401

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Links for Noting, Notably Noted

* Boswell's Postcards from a Hanging

* Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Philosophers (ht)

* Tasneem Zehra Husain, On Optimal Paths & Minimal Action

* Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists. Strictly speaking, of course, what the study actually does is just collect cases -- albeit a fair number of them -- of people scoring on these traits on a pscyhological trait when they also claim that trolling is their favorite internet activity.

* Gail Presbey, African Sage Philosophy, at the IEP

* Lydia McGrew on William Paley's Horae Paulinae

* Philosophers' Carnival #167

* Teresa Limjoco on Mary, Queen of Scots

* David J. Palm on usury

* Christopher Tollefsen on Incest and Pornography at "Public Discourse"

* MrD on The Tragic Sense of History

* Jennifer Nagel has a good Philosophy Bites podcast on Intuitions about Knowledge

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Philip of Opus was, according to gossip left us by Diogenes Laertius in his Life of Plato, a student in Plato's Academy. When Plato died, the Laws were still in draft form on wax tablets, and Philip of Opus is said by some to have written out the manuscript from those tablets. And, says Diogenes Laertius with no further explanation, some say that Philip of Opus wrote the Epinomis. 'Epinomis', of course, indicates that it was intended to be an appendix to the Laws, and, indeed, one can not uncommonly find people in antiquity referring to it as the thirteenth book of the Laws. Stylometrically the dialogue fits very well with all of the dialogues usually called 'late dialogues' -- Laws, Philebus, Statesman, Sophist, Timaeus, Critias. So vocabulary and style don't give us any obvious reason to reject it as authentically Plato. So, beyond Diogenes Laertius (and perhaps the Suda, assuming it was using sources other than Diogenes Laertius himself when it makes the same claim), the only reasons for taking this dialogue to be inauthentic are content-based: there are a number of claims made here that seem hard to square with positions in other Platonic dialogues. Content-based evaluations of authenticity are relatively weak, but there are several objections based on content. And, of course, while Diogenes Laertius is not a reliable source for what really happened, he does seem to be a fairly reliable source for what other people said or wrote, and the fact that someone in antiquity (whoever it may have been) thought it as Philip's perhaps bears some weight even though we have no idea who he was or why he said it -- it's not as if the name 'Philip of Opus' just leaps to mind when thinking about Plato, so one presumes that there was some specific reason for the attribution. Cicero, however, at least once refers to the dialogue (in De Oratore) as if it were Plato's, so that at least suggests that the attribution to Philip of Opus was not universal.

You can read the Epinomis online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource.

The Characters

The dialogue has the same characters as the Laws: the Athenian Stranger, Clinias of Crete, and Megillus of Sparta. Megillus, however, is only present; he does not speak.

The Plot and The Thought

The dialogue opens with Clinias insisting that they should finish the discussion; in particular, they should discuss the most important thing: "what a mortal must learn in order to be wise" (973b). The Athenian replies that most human beings are not happy, and that life tends to be hard and harsh. One of the difficulties it throws in our way is that of discovering wisdom. While some people have been reputed wise by learning various arts and sciences a long time ago, we see in most cases that you can spend lifetimes on the knowledge and not be any wiser. Such is the knowledge relevant to what to eat, or the knowledge involved in agriculture, or the knowledge of architectures and the crafts. Prophetic inspiration does not give it, nor do any of the fine arts, nor does military strategy or navigation. Wisdom is not even given by the natural talent for learning well. But, the Athenian says, there is one kind of knowledge without which human beings would be virtually senseless and unintelligent, namely, the gift of numbers. It is god-given:

It is God himself, I believe, and not some good fortune that saves us by making this gift. But I must say which god I mean, though it will seem strange, though yet in a way not strange....Uranus (i.e., heaven), the god whom above all others it si most just to pray to and to honor, as all the other divinities and gods do. We will unanimously agree that he has been the cause of all other good things fo rus. But we declare that he is really the one who gave us number too, and he will continue to give it, supposing that we are willing to follow him closely. (976e-977a)

Without number we can know nothing of proportion or of how to prove things or of how to give a rational explanation for anything or of how to behave in an orderly and thus virtuous way or of how to make beautiful things. We are taught number directly by the god himself, whether we call him Cosmos or Olympos or Ouranos:

With us humans, the first thing God caused to dwell in us was the capability to understand what we are shown, and then he proceeded to show us, and he still does....Since Heaven never stops making these bodies ply their course night after night and day after day, he never stops teaching humans one and two, until even the slowest person learns well enough to count. (978c-d)

The Athenian then reiterates the account given in Book X of the Laws of the priority of soul, and argues that there are two kinds of living thing: one made of fire and one made of earth. The living things made of fire move in perfect order, whereas the living things made of earth are more disordered. From the fact that the bodies of the heavens move in such excellent order, we should conclude that they are not just living but intelligent. The Athenian notes that the vulgar populace tends to assume that because the stars always do the same thing that they are unintelligent, but replies that this makes no sense if you think about what intelligence is. It is that which is less subject to chance and inexplicable motion, that which is most uniform and invariable, that most deserves the name 'intelligence'. And we can see this confirmed in the fact that the stars are extraordinarily vast, but still keep an orderly and lawlike motion. And if soul is prior to body, as argued in Book X of the Laws, then the bodies that decorate Heaven must move according to souls. There are then two possibilities: either they are themselves gods, or they are likenesses of gods that have been formed by the gods. Thus the stars must be honored and hymned as higher and better and nobler and more beautiful than us. We can legislate about other gods (Zeus, Hera, and so forth) as seems best given our history; but the stars are the gods that are "visible, greatest, most honored, and most sharply seeing everywhere" (984d).

After the living beings of fire come the living beings of ether, then the living beings of air, water, and earth. Between us and the gods are the daemons. Those of ether, who are closest to the gods, and those in the middle position, made of air, are always imperceptible to us. Unlike the gods, they can experience pleasure and pain, love and hate; but they are better at loving good and hating bad than we are. Beneath these two kinds of daemons are the daemons made of water, which are sometimes imperceptible and sometimes perceptible. The gods and the daemons are the sources of all religious rites, and their determinations, such as we can learn of them through dreams or divine voices, should be respected by legislators. This is difficult to do, but the Greeks are well-favored. Because they have education, the oracle of Delphi, and relatively good laws, as well as an excellent location for the viewing of the sky, they will tend to be able to worship the gods better than any other people. This right reverence for the gods is the most important part of virtue.

Astronomy therefore is the science of wisdom, and the true astronomer is the wisest kind of person. Out of astronomy we learn all of mathematics, music, and dance. We learn reverence for the gods, and everything needed to know the bonds that unite the world. After death the astronomer (and here the Athenian says he is half-joking and half-serious) will have the kind of pure knowledge without which human beings cannot be happy. Thus astronomy should be the foundation on which high office and especially the Nocturnal Council in the new colony is based.

  Additional Remarks

* One of the content-based reasons for questioning the authenticity of the dialogue is the extraordinary exaltation of astronomy. Astronomy, to be sure, was clearly stated to be important in the Laws; while the Laws is a work of civil theology, not natural theology, it made clear that astronomy was the point at which civil theology and natural theology overlapped. The two bulwarks mentioned there, erected against the corrosive influence of atheism on our conceptions of rule of law, were the priority of soul over body and the rationality of the heavens. So it makes sense that astronomy would be foundational. But the claims made for astronomy here strike many people as much more extreme than one would expect from Plato, even so. Plato's Socrates, for instance, in the Republic seems to hold (529d-e) that astronomy is merely a preparatory discipline for the much more important knowledge of the Forms. However, the Epinomis is building on comments in the Laws itself, for instance, Book VII (817e-818a).

* The Epinomis is one of the earliest works attesting to our names for the planets -- it uses the Greek names, of course, and we use the Latin, but the correspondences are exact: Aphrodites' star is Venus, Hermes' star is Mercury, Ares' star is Mars, Zeus's star is Jupiter, and Chronos's star is Saturn. (Mercury is also called Hermes' star at Timaeus 38d.)


Quotations are from the translation of Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, trs., pp. 1617-1633.

And now we have gone through the entire Platonic corpus.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Dividing Line Between Competent and Incompetent Critics

One thing that I've become more sure of as time goes on is that most people are incompetent critics of literary works. There are lots of different kinds of incompetent critics. There's the incompetent critic who has his personal tastes and absolutely refuses to recognize anything not conforming to them. There's the incompetent critic who is always complaining about the fact that the story is not the one he would have written -- this one usually makes me want to strangle him. There's the incompetent critic who has some abstract theory or standard in his head, which is then applied mechanically and without regard for circumstances. There's the critic who makes definitive judgments about works that he hasn't read. There are many others.

There's nothing wrong with being an incompetent critic, per se, but it's quite important to recognize that there is incompetence in criticism. It is at least sometimes provable that criticism is incompetent -- the most obvious cases come from the person who clearly is getting facts about the work wrong, but you can often find critics engaging in bizarre kinds of reasoning, or just stubborn repetition without any appropriate and relevant reasons. And it's worth noting that being a 'reader' doesn't make you a competent critic.

The philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment did a lot of work on critical competence -- good taste, as they called it -- and they noted that good taste requires extensive experience, the ability to draw relevant distinctions, and a sympathetic understanding of human beings generally. All of these are things that can be rationally assessed.

Increasingly, however, I have come to think that one of the common characteristics, and perhaps the distinguishing feature, of incompetent criticism is not recognizing that skill is skill, that craft has the structure of craft. All skill or craft has goals in view; the whole point of skill is that it appropriately applies means to achieve goals and does so successfully. Over and over again I see in book reviews, incomments on blogs, in recommendations for people trying to do NaNoWriMo, and in a thousand other venues, a common failure to evaluate a literary work in terms of the only ways it can actually be evaluated as a work at all: the ends sought, the means used to accomplish those ends, and the many and various excellences in the way the author uses the means to accomplish the ends. If we strip away all irrelevancies, all purely arbitrary and irrational criteria, there is nothing about a work itself that can be assessed except these three things:

(1) Are the ends sought genuinely good?
(2) Are the means appropriate to the end?
(3) Are the means used in a way to achieve the end well?

I thus lay it down as a rule: If you cannot identify what the author is trying to do, your opinion about the work is of no importance at all. It does not matter whether you were bored. It does not matter whether you have ideas about how you think it should have been written. It does not matter whether you hated it. It does not matter whether you liked it. If you don't know what the author is doing, or if you've misunderstood what the author is doing, your judgment is about you, and says nothing about the work itself.

Now, of course, there are layers and layers to this. Unless a writer is crafting tiny, standalone poetic gems, he or she will always be doing more than one thing (and perhaps not even then). One of the things that is true of practically all of the great masters is that they are doing lots of things simultaneously. You can read Jane Austen as light fiction, because she is doing light-fiction things like funny characters and romantic plots. You can read Jane Austen as profound social criticism because all her works do engage in social criticism. You can read Jane Austen as moral philosophy because all her works explore questions in moral philosophy. They are all built into the novels, and you can explore any or all of them. But the competence of your judgement about the novels depends entirely on your ability to see some of them, and the significance of your evaluation does not go beyond the ends you've understood.

All of the bad critics mentioned at the beginning of this post obviously fail to treat the craft as a craft, as the effective application of means to achieve productive ends. If you look at famously bad critical reviews, like Edmund Wilson's attack on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you can see at every turn that they make this error. It even shows some of the problems of subtler failings in criticism, like attacking competent writers for not being authorial geniuses, which shows that you have no respect for the craft. If you attack Alfred Austin simply for not being as great as Tennyson, this does not show your good taste but your stupidity; it shows that you are a poser with no sense of good poetic workmanship, and are not able to give an account of when a poet is using good means in an appropriate way to accomplish poetic ends. That is what it is to assess the craftsmanship of a piece.

Of course, everything said here about literary criticism applies equally to any other critical evaluation of some product of artisanship, whether it be paintings or buildings or food or philosophical arguments.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Nomoi (Part IV: Gods and Virtues)

Book X

The Athenian proposes that the greatest respect for law is closely connected with belief in gods. This raises the problem of those who either do not believe in gods or who believe in them in ways that do not support law. There are three such groups, structured by belief in three different propositions:

(1) The gods do not exist.
(2) The gods exist but do not bother with the human race.
(3) The gods exist and are easily influenced by sacrifice and the like.

One of the standing themes of the Laws is that legislators should begin with persuasion, not coercion, so the problem of these groups is how one can go about persuading them. Clinias replies that the existence of gods is easy and obvious to show:

Well, just look at the earth and the sun and the stars and the universe in general; look at the wonderful procession of the seasons and its articulation into years and months! Anyway, you know that all Greeks and all foreigners are unanimous in recognizing the existence of gods. (886a)

The Athenian happens to agree that order and common consent show the existence of gods, but he points out that Clinias and Megillus, perhaps because of their background, don't grasp the full problem, which is that people in these groups have deliberately made up accounts to get around these points: they will say that sun and earth are just dumb, mute stones incapable of caring about human affairs. And on this ground they will insist that it is monstrous to make belief in gods part of the laws.

The Athenian's suggested response is to try to get the people in question to keep an open mind. Whatever they might think, they are not alone, nor the first to come up with these ideas; the population of each of the three groups rises and falls, but there are always some who fall into it. It is very common, though, for people who are in these groups eventually to change their minds, however.

The Athenians note that people tend to explain things that have come into existence, or will come into existence, by attributing them to nature (physis), skill (techne), or chance (tyche). On the basis of this, they often argue that skill is a secondary and derivative cause; it lacks the perfection of nature and is also an explanation applying to very few things, since natural works come about purely by nature and chance. In addition, the best work of skill is usually just a cooperation with nature, in which nature does the bulk of the work. On the basis of this, they think that government is mostly artificial rather than natural, and its laws are purely artificial. This leads people to conclude that the gods are legal fictions, matters of convention. They take the fact that human beings always argue about moral standards as a sign that they are artificial, and thus conclude, if they follow through on this all, that "anything one can get away with by force is absolutely justified" (890a) -- after all, the force-backed life has the same justification as any other, that people just made it so. Only if the standards were largely founded on nature could you hold that they were anything other than ideas impressed by force of will. But the standards have to be matters of skill; so if skill is not a major cause, matters like law are mostly artificial works of arbitrary will.

'Might makes right' is obviously death to justice in the city, but the Athenian notes that the legislator cannot go around punishing everyone on all the matters of civic good. The first step is indeed to focus on persuading them, however pernicious their doctrine might be. A difficulty here is that the addresses could be difficult and dull, but Clinias drily remarks that as they had to listen to the Athenian give a long, dull account of the importance of drinking parties, they surely can tolerate one on theology, particularly since it is the sort of thing that one would need to be clear about in the course of legislating.

The Athenian proposes that the root problem is thinking that everything is really made of elements (fire, water, earth, air) and that nature just is the ordinary action of these elements, while soul (i.e., life) is derivative from, and explained by, nature. The problem arises, in other words, out of a misunderstanding of the soul. In reality, soul has a sort of priority over what they are calling nature: "It is one of the first creations, born long before all physical things, and is the chief cause of all their alterations and transformations" (892a). Things of the soul, like reason, are prior and superior to the bodily things that they take to be natural and fundamental.

We find in the world things that move and things that stand still. They fall into different groups. Some of those that move will do so in different locations and some, like revolving circles, will do so in the same locations. Sometimes moving things collide, and when they do, they sometimes coalesce, increasing their bulk, or divide, decreasing their bulk, or are sometimes destroyed. When things are produced, we have a series of transitions to whatever is produced and, ultimately, to our perceiving it. But all of this overlooks, the Athenian says, two other kinds of motion:

The one kind of motion is that which is permanently capable of moving other things but not itself; the other is permanently capable of moving both itself and other things by processes of combination and separation, increase and diminution, generation and destruction. (894b)

Of these, the most powerful motion, that which is most effective as such, is that of the self-generating motion. Because there cannot be an infinite regress in motions, it seems that there must be some initial principle that involves self-generating motion. If we see this self-generating motion arise in a body, however, we call it alive; self-generating motion is that of a soul, i.e., what makes something a living thing -- soul is "motion capable of moving itself" (896a). Thus soul is prior to material things, and thus things like calculation, will, habit, memory -- all the things associated with reason -- can in principle be prior to material things. If it is original motion, however, it appears that it must control the movements of the heavens themselves, as a sort of world soul. If we look at the movements of the heavens, they are very orderly, in such a way that they bear a likeness to the circular movements of reason itself; so it would be arbitrary to deny that the world soul is a rational and virtuous soul. But if drives the heavens itself, and we all depend on the heavens, then it seems that its jurisdiction, so to speak, is everywhere and that "there are good grounds for believing that we are in fact held in the embrace of some such thing though it is totally below the level of our bodily senses, and is perceptible by reason alone" (898d). If we take the sun, the soul either is 'in' the sun in the way our soul is in our body, or it takes a different body that moves the sun by external contact, or it is wholly immaterial and moves the sun in some other way. But if any of the three is true, the soul provides us with light and such, and is reasonably called a god. So it is with all the rest: "everything is full of gods" (899b).

Thus either the people in question should demonstrate where the line of reasoning goes wrong, not merely by making up a different account but by giving a better case, or they should be persuaded that there are gods. Similar lines of argument can back the case against (2) and (3). We seem to have what is required to identify that the gods have some kind of virtue, suitable to rational life, and then it's just a question of whether it makes sense to say that the virtuous gods on whom all depends and whose jurisdiction covers everything neglect a considerable portion of those things, regardless of how important they think they are in the grand scheme of things, or whether it makes sense that the gods would not correct injustice, which is so harmful to human life.

The Athenian thinks that the argument he's given could use some work, but takes it to be a good start on a prelude to the law of impiety. He then discusses the work of the Nocturnal Council, an institution concerned with educating people on pious behavior and rehabilitating people who violate the laws against impiety. He also argues that no one should be allowed to possess a private shrine, since this encourages deviations and in particular can teach people that they can buy the gods off with bribes of private sacrifices.

  Additional Remarks

* The discussion of the three kinds of atheism -- as all three positions would have been called in the ancient world -- is not a strange digression. First, Books X and XI discuss transactions with others, and the Athenian is starting with the gods. But there is a more important reason that ties in with the idea of the whole dialogue. If one wanted to summarize the Laws in a single thesis, it is relatively easy to determine what it would be: Proper laws are a kind of divine order because they are expressions of reason, which is the divine in us; and reason is the divine in us because it has a kinship with the gods. Because of the link, made explicit from the beginning, between the laws and the gods, each of the three kinds of atheism is already an implicit form of error about law; that is why atheism is inconsistent with the rule of law proposed in the dialogue. The correspondence can be put fairly simply:

Theological ErrorPolitical Error
No godsReason is not divine
No providenceLaw is not a divine order
No reckoningMight makes right

The connection is not a mere analogy; the point is that the theological error on the left already commits you to the political error on the right. If there are no gods, reason cannot have kinship with them, and is not divine, which means that the law is not a divine order and is merely artificial, which gives us might makes right. If the gods do not care about human affairs, law is not a divine order; if there is no ultimate reckoning, justice can be evaded by bribe. All of this connects with claims that Plato has explicitly argued elsewhere, e.g., the Republic and Gorgias.

* The major concern throughout the book, it must be emphasized, is the primacy of reason.

Book XI

The Athenian continues the discussion of the laws by considering transactions with others besides the gods. The basic principle is that of consent: "no one should touch my property or tamper with it, unless I have given him some sort of permission; and if I am sensible I shall treat the property of others with the same respect" (913a). This is true even with things like buried treasure; if it's not legally yours, you can't take it, and it's impious to pray for it. All trading, as well, must be consistent with piety -- no lying under oath -- and people who are discovered to have known about fraud and not reported it are punished.

Trading -- i.e., mere trading, as in retail or wholesale, rather than producing and selling one's products -- is to be looked at with suspicion, because the majority of people cannot restrain their desires but always want more. Thus, while trading is allowed, only foreigners and resident aliens can do it; citizens are punished if they engage in retailing and wholesaling. The prices of retailers and wholesalers must be approved; the trader is to be allowed a real profit, based on his expenses, but the approved price must be displayed. Craftsmanship, the economic activity in which citizens can engage, is to be encouraged, but craftsmen are held strictly to their contracts and are to be taught that, having Athena and Hephaestus (or, depending on their craft, Athena and Ares) as their patrons, they have a responsibility to their divine patrons to keep their word. People buying from craftsmen are also held strictly to contract, so that if you fail to pay for something on time, you will be forced to pay double, and if you are a year overdue, you will be charged interest. (This is a notable move, because we've already seen that loans in general are not to be charged interest.)

After these, the next issue is inheritance, which is concerned with two points: the custom of making wills and the fact that people by chance die intestate. The Athenians think legislators have usually been lax about this matter, allowing people to dispose of their property however they see fit. This is as much to say, however, that people can ignore the good of the city in disposing of their property. Land allotments are not handled by wills at all, since it is seen as city property to which one has special entitlement; one can only dispose of acquired property, and there are restrictions on that. Dependents are favored over non-dependents, and if a man has no children, he can only give ten percent of his to anyone he pleases; if he wants to give more to someone, he must adopt that person as a son or daughter. A number of complicated rules are proposed for handling different kinds of cases where someone dies intestate; the Athenian explicitly recognizes that some such situations leave everyone bad off, and the best the legislator can do is try to minimize the harm to the city as a whole.

Filial piety is to be encouraged with the most urgent exhortation, and neglect of parents is a very serious crime. Other ways in which we harm other people are given various kinds of penalties. One of the guiding ideas throughout is that an institution or practice can be extraordinarily valuable to a city but can have its "evil genius" (937d), a sort of false version of it. Sophists in particular are in view. If someone attempts to use sophistry to win a court case, it is a crime: if they do so simply because they are pugnacious, they are banned for a period from any sort of litigation, but are killed if they are convicted a second time; and if they so because of avarice, they are exiled (if a foreigner) or killed (if a citizen).

Book XII

Next we have crimes against the city itself, such as impersonation of an emissary or defection in military service. There is considerable concern in the latter for being quite sure that it was a real defection, and not simply (for instance) a tactical retreat because you were robbed of your weapons before or during battle. The fines for deliberately abandoning your weapons, however, are very steep. The Athenian also devotes a considerable amount of attention to the office that inspects other officials, and to the laws governing admission of foreigners and travel abroad. The rules are strict in the latter cases, but generous hospitality to the foreigner is, of course, a legal requirement, being a moral matter that Greeks took very seriously.

The Athenian ends with a discussion of the Nocturnal Council, which is to have a role in the city analogous to reason in the human person. All virtue is a matter of reason, and all legislation is to be aimed at virtue. The Nocturnal Council is charged with maintaining these principles by educating people, especially officials, in virtue, and in things like theology and astronomy that are conducive to it. The full account of this, however, is deferred -- one needs to have the city formed, and the officials educated, before one can entrust it to the Nocturnal Council.

Megillus and Clinias end the dialogue by agreeing that they should make sure the Athenian is a partner with them in founding the colony.

  Additional Remarks

* What powers, exactly, the Nocturnal Council has is highly controverted in commentary on the dialogue. On the one hand, the Athenian constantly talks about the Council as educational, and never expressly gives it any coercive authority -- it seems to exist to persuade. On the other hand, its given such importance in the dialogue that it has seemed to people that it must have some kind of coercive power. Chris Bobonich and Katherine Meadows have a good discussion of this in their article on Plato on utopia. It is worth remembering, however, that one of the themes throughout the dialogue is that it is even more important for law to be persuasive than for it to be coercive; I don't think one can rule out the possibility that the Nocturnal Council is an expression of this principle.


Quotations are from Trevor Saunders's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds, pp. 1318-1616.

Until the Ancient Race of Time Be Run

One Certainty
by Christina Rossetti

Vanity of vanities, the Preacher saith,
All things are vanity. The eye and ear
Cannot be filled with what they see and hear:
Like early dew, or like the sudden breath
Of wind, or like the grass that withereth,
Is man, tossed to and fro by hope and fear:
So little joy hath he, so little cheer,
Till all things end in the long dust of death.
Today is the still the same as yesterday,
Tomorrow also even as one of them;
And there is nothing new under the sun:
Until the ancient race of Time be run,
The old thorns shall grow out of the old stem,
And morning shall be cold and twilight grey.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nomoi (Part III: City in Speech)

Book VI

Having established the preliminaries, the Athenian Stranger turns to the first element of city organization: competent officials to administer law. Incompetent officials can can make even good laws harmful. This is an especially acute problem when we are dealing with a new colony, since you have all sorts of different people thrown together, likely for the first time, and thus you cannot rely on education and background. The Athenian's solution is to leverage the colony's close connection to Knossos, which will serve as a sort of guardian or ward of the colony as it is designating its first officials.

I will not go through all the institutions here. Officials are to be elected by an Assembly (ekklesia) of all the citizens. They elect thirty-seven Law-Guardians (nomophylakes), all over fifty, who are exactly what their name suggests -- they oversee the maintenance of law. They have minor disciplinary powers and some important but very restricted judicial powers; although the Stranger does not give details, it seems their most essential function would be just to give a certain amount of transparency or accountability to everything, so that abuses can be easily discovered and, even more important than this, people are regularly reminded of the way things should be. There is a Council (boule) of ninety members, distributed among four different property classes, serving one-year terms. It includes both men and women -- men can be elected started at the age of thirty, women at the age of forty. Generals and cavalry commanders are elected from a list put forward by the Law-Guardians. There are lots of other positions concerned with the civil religion, the courts, and the day-to-day administration of the city. All of the elections are organized in an attempt to ensure that there is a sort of equality between citizens, but that this equality is that of each person receiving according to his or her merit.

The Athenian spends some amount of time discussing the laws and customs for marriage, since well-matched marriages are essential to the health of the city: people marrying need to be informed about the background of their prospective spouses, and the Stranger suggests that strictly supervised dances in the nude should be used to get young men and women together. Wedding expense is regulated to avoid competition in luxurious displays. Newlyweds are not allowed to remain at home, but must strike out on their own, with the husband supporting the family. Having children is the major responsibility of the newlyweds, both husband and wife, and they can be publicly admonished if they do not take this seriously; they can also negotiate terms of divorce if children turn out to be possible.

  Additional Remarks

* While men and women are not exactly equal in the colony, since there are some important differences in expectations and requirements for each, there is no area of political power that is off-limits for women. Women have the same basic education as men, attend communal meals like men, are full citizens, can vote in the Assembly, can be elected to office, and, if they have already borne children, can fight in the army. The radicalness of this in comparison with the misogyny of Greek society, in which women had no political power and were treated as minors all their lives, is extraordinary. It is also an explicit and deliberate move. The Athenian Stranger thinks women have less natural potential for virtue than men (perhaps unsurprising given that one of the four main parts of virtue is andreia, manliness), but they do have the capacity for it, and so he insists that it is a defect of any constitution to leave half the human race out of account. He will also argue this in Book VII (804d and following).

Book VII

Having covered the precondition for children being born, the Athenian Stranger turns to the education of children once they have been. He refrains from precise regulation because of the difficulties involved with regulating private family life, and but insists that something, at least advisory, must be said on the subject, because ad education of children can undermine the laws. In the Athenian's conception of the education of children, it begins quite early; to the surprise of his companions, he holds that it begins in the womb, with the mother's physical exercise, and continues outside the womb with what singing and dancing is appropriate to the child's abilities, with a focus on trying to assist the child in not being governed by fear. Clinias and the Athenian end up disagreeing on whether this should include plenty of pleasures; the Athenian argues that one should find a balance of pleasures and pains and that the child should be taught not to seek pleasure in an active way, and Clinias concedes the point. All these things, however, cannot be laws in the usual sense; they have to be unwritten, and work like immemorial custom, if they are to work at all.

As the children get older, more specific physical training is required -- horsemanship, archery, javelin-throwing, and the use of the sling; boys should be required, and the girls allowed, to attend any lessons, although boys should be taught with boys and girls with girls. This prepares for serious training in dancing and wrestling. The Athenian also argues, at considerable length, that one should discourage any significant changes in the games children play, to avoid teaching children a taste for novelty as such: the nomoi (songs) have become nomoi (laws), and so there should be a standard public canon lest lawlessness be discouraged (709e-800a). Given the difficulty of rule-making in this kind of situation, however, the Athenian proposes that there should be model laws to be the mold or impression for shaping other actions.

The Athenian then gives an extended argument that women should be given the same training as men, including at least some training for the military, and discusses various issues concerned with cultivating an appropriate work ethic. Literature is to be studied using model works, like the Laws itself (811c-e). Astronomy is to be quite important, because it studies "the gods of the heavens" (821c). And the Athenian ends the discussion of education by looking at regulations for hunting.


The next item on the agenda is "a program of festivals to be established by law" (828a). The Athenian argues that there are to be sacrifices every day, as well as twelve major festivals to honor the Olympian gods. In addition, there are to be festivals to the gods of the underworld, which, however, are to be kept separate from the Twelve. One day a month there should be a festival with war games, to be pursued with as much spirit as athletic competitions, and focused on cooperation and teamwork. Two things tend to interfere with teamwork in the city at large: pursuit of wealth and partisan spirit. Thus one needs the proper constitution to encourage this kind of military training for the citizens.

Sexual matters, which are next, are a complicated question. They must be kept in order: "Reason, which is embodied in law as far as it can be, tells us to avoid indulging the passions that have ruined so many people" (835e). But finding a remedy for sex-driven disruption of the common welfare is difficult. The sexual loves you need to encourage are those that are not focused on the body, but on the soul and character, and that are had between virtuous people. Megillus agrees fairly easily with this, although Clinias is more reluctant. The Athenian argues that one should try to make it so that unimproving loves are treated like incest, a disgusting abomination; and, in particular, sex should only be allowed when it is for procreation. He recognizes that young men would have difficulty accepting this, but thinks that sufficient religious support will get around this. The young should be encouraged to conquer pleasure, and given the support they need in order to do so.

After sex, agricultural laws are considered, including the importance of not moving boundary stones and respecting the land of others. Then we have laws governing craftsmen and artisans.

  Additional Remarks

* It's notable how concerned the Athenian is with avoiding intrusiveness into most of the matters discussed in this Book; the kinds of laws found here would not have been unheard of in Greek cities, and the focus here tends to be on indirect persuasion. The point of all of the laws discussed, of course, is to encourage people to maintain the priorities indicated in the general prelude, i.e., maintaining the greater importance of the soul than the body, and of the body than possessions.

Book IX

Book IX continues the discussion of particular laws by focusing on serious prosecutable acts and the penalties they should receive. The Athenian notes that having to do this at all is already a sign that the laws have in some way failed; but as we legislate today for men rather than demigods, it is a necessity. Punishment will be a big part of the argument, so I will mostly highlight matters concerned with legal penalty.

The first prosecutable offense discussed is robbery from temples. In the course of discussing the penalty (branding on face and hands, plus flogging, plus exile), the Athenian remarks that in punishment one attempts to make the person undergoing the penalty either more virtuous or less wicked. He also notes that punishment is a way to make the wrongdoer of service to others; "he will be of service to others, by being a lesson to them" (855a). He also argues that the children of a wrongdoer, if they do not follow in the footsteps of the parent, should be given honors for their example.

If a crime requires a fine, then if the person is not able to pay it, imprisonment or some other temporary penalty (like standing or sitting in public for all to see one's wrongdoing) should be given; but nobody is ever to be deprived completely of the rights of the citizen, even if he is banished from the city.

After the serious religious offense comes the serious political offense; subversion, either through stirring up actual sedition or through negligence in the face of sedition of someone in an official role charged with maintaining the city. No penalties of fathers are to be visited on children with the exception of cases where the child's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather have all committed capital crimes; in which case the children should be returned to the original home city from which the original colonists in the family came.

The next crime is theft, which the Athenian says should all receive the same penalty, namely, payment of twice the value of the property stolen. Clinias balks here, however, protesting that it makes no sense to give all theft the same penalty, and that every other code of laws takes into account all sorts of circumstances surrounding the theft. But the Athenian reminds the Cretan that they agreed that the laws were not merely to be imposed on the citizens by force; they were to be seen as tutoring the citizens, as well, and gaining their voluntary compliance by persuasion. The Athenian claims that nobody is willingly unjust, so the common distinction used in the laws of Greek cities between involuntary and voluntary justice has no place. But the distinction does seem to be getting at something, namely, the difference between laws concerned with injustice and laws concerned with injury. The Athenian proposes a general policy:

...when anyone commits an act of injustice, serious or trivial, the law will combine instruction and constraint, so that in the future either the criminal will never again dare to commit such a crime voluntarily, or he will do it a very great deal less often; and in addition, he will pay compensation for the damage he has done. (862d)

The point of law is to teach people to pursue justice and hate injustice; although the death penalty is admissible, it is only to be used for incurable cases.

With this in mind, he moves on to discuss homicide. In cases of premeditated murder, he identifies three major causes of the crime: the first is desire (epithymia), especially for wealth; the second is ambition (philotimia); the third is fear (phobia). He also argues that the citizens should actively be taught that they will be punished for this crime in the afterlife; when they are reincarnated, they will by a law of nature experience the same fates as their victims. If this does not deter, the crime of premeditated murder should be handled in the same way and by the same punishment as temple-robbery. A similar kind of process handles murder specifically of a relative. Suicides, as murderers of themselves, should receive dishonorable burial. The Athenian proposes, however, that if someone kills someone else in self-defense, or in retaliation for rape, or in the process of defending an innocent family member, that he should be considered innocent before the law.

Next comes maiming and wounding. If it is premeditated, it is to be treated as murder, but out of respect for the spirit that prevented it from ending in death, it should fall short of receiving the capital penalty. Striking a parent, being a significant impiety, is to be sharply punished.

  Additional Remarks

* The Athenian in passing argues against thinking of death as the most extreme penalty; the most extreme penalty is punishment in the afterlife. He doubts that either has a deterrent effect on some people, though.

* One of the key themes of the Laws comes out quite clearly in some of the discussions of penalties: laws that are properly designed do not merely coerce, they persuade. Punishments in particular are to be designed so as to warn citizens. Note that this is not deterrence; it is difficult to imagine Plato thinking a deterrent theory of punishment anything other than an abomination -- punishment may deter, but as a legislative matter, if you are already at the punishment stage, you have already missed the point at which deterrence was supposed to be a major concern, and you have, moreover, failed. The goals of punishment are instead educative: (1) to teach citizens in general the priorities of the city; and (2) to rehabilitate lawbreakers by teaching them what is just and what is unjust, if that is possible. Temple robbery and murder and assaulting parents are given severe punishments in order to make clear what the common good of the city is. Failing to do so would teach the citizens that they are no great matters, leading to the deterioration of the integrity of the city as citizens stop prioritizing goods properly. This conception of punishment as educative will become highly influential in ancient philosophy.

No Chains Can Bind It, and No Cell Enclose

Freedom of the Mind
by William Lloyd Garrison

High walls and huge the Body may confine,
And iron grates obstruct the prisoner's gaze,
And massive bolts may baffle his design,
And vigilant keepers watch his devious ways:
Yet scorns th' immortal Mind this base control!
No chains can bind it, and no cell enclose:
Swifter than light, it flies from pole to pole,
And, in a flash, from earth to heaven it goes!
It leaps from mount to mount — from vale to vale
It wanders, plucking honeyed fruits and flowers;
It visits home, to hear the fireside tale,
Or in sweet converse pass the joyous hours.
'Tis up before the sun, roaming afar,
And, in its watches, wearies every star!

Baltimore Jail, May, 1830.

The reason Garrison was in jail was that he accused a shipowner, Francis Todd, of engaging in the domestic slave trade and of being brutal to slaves; Todd sued him for libel and won. Garrison was fined but, as he could not pay the fine, he was jailed until he could pay. After seven weeks his fine was paid by his fellow abolitionist, Arthur Tappan.