Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fortnightly Books Index 2015

We are somewhere around 100 books at this point.

December 13: Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
Introduction, Review

November 29: Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events
Introduction, Review

November 15: Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantrae
Introduction, Review

October 25: Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Introduction, Review

October 11: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
Introduction, Review

September 27: Alexander Solzenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Introduction, Review

September 13: Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm; and Year of the Griffin
Introduction, Review

August 30: Evelyn Waugh, Edmund Campion: A Life; and Brideshead Revisited
Introduction, Review

August 9: Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
Introduction, Review

July 19: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Volume 2
Introduction, Review

July 12: Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
Introduction, Review

June 21: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Volume 1
Introduction, Review

June 7: Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera
Introduction, Review, Locus Focus

May 24: Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before
Introduction, Review

May 10: Marshall Terry, Tom Northway
Introduction, Review

April 26: Jack London, The Sea-Wolf
Introduction, Review

April 12: Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days
Introduction, Review

March 29: Louis L'Amour, Sackett; and The Sackett Brand
Introduction, Review

March 15: The Mabinogion
Introduction, Review

March 1: Anton Chekhov, Two Plays
Introduction, Review

February 15: Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession
Introduction, Review

February 1: Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes
Introduction, Review

January 18: Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac
Introduction, Review, Cyrano's Ballade

December 28: William Shakespeare, Histories
Introduction, Review, Supplement

Fortnightly Books Index for 2014

Fortnightly Books Index for 2012-2013

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Last Vigil of the Year

Watch with Me
by Christina Rossetti

Watch with me, men, women, and children dear,
You whom I love, for whom I hope and fear,
Watch with me this last vigil of the year.
Some hug their business, some their pleasure-scheme;
Some seize the vacant hour to sleep or dream;
Heart locked in heart some kneel and watch apart.

Watch with me bless├Ęd spirits, who delight
All through the holy night to walk in white,
Or take your ease after the long-drawn fight.
I know not if they watch with me: I know
They count this eve of resurrection slow,
And cry, 'How long?' with urgent utterance strong.

Watch with me Jesus, in my loneliness:
Though others say me nay, yet say Thou yes;
Though others pass me by, stop Thou to bless.
Yea, Thou dost stop with me this vigil night;
To-night of pain, to-morrow of delight:
I, Love, am Thine; Thou, Lord my God, art mine.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Music on My Mind

Chisu, "Tuu mua vastaan".

Trying to work through the lyrics of this song is a bit baffling; it's filled with colloquial and dialectal terms that are not easily recognized if you don't already know them and phrases no real person would ever say so they can't be guessed at beforehand. I had never seen mua before; it's a version of the first-person pronoun, as if Finnish needed yet more pronoun forms. The more formal form, I take it, would be minua. Tuu I don't recognize, but it seems to be related to tulla, and in particular to the imperative form tule, 'come'. Vastaan is one of those words that has infinite shades of meaning depending on how exactly it is used; its basic meaning is something like 'over against', but it can mean lots of other things derived from this. The lyrics translation sites translate tuu mua vastaan as 'come meet me', which I would never have guessed, but makes some sense.

There are a number of other words you wouldn't normally expect to hear, like Venukselta. The -lta ending means 'off of', so the phrase astun alas Venukselta means 'I will step down off of Venus'. So now you can use the phrase if you ever happen to be in Finland and have an occasion to make people think you are crazy. Although, to be sure, for all I know people in Finland might say things like this all the time.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Maronite Year XII

Depending on the day on which Christmas falls, there may be either one or two Sundays before Epiphany. The current liturgical norms for these are quite clear:

If there is one Sunday between the Glorious Birth of Our Lord and the Epiphany, the Finding of the Lord in the Temple is celebrated. If there are two Sundays between these feasts, the Glorious Birth of Our Lord is celebrated on the first Sunday and the Finding of the Lord in the Temple on the second Sunday.

Thus the Sunday after Christmas in the Maronite calendar is a reiteration of Christmas. (I believe that this is relatively new, and that the previous custom was that it was the Finding of the Lord in the Temple, rather than Christmas, that was twinned in two-Sunday years; at least, I have an old PDF of an English translation of the Qurbono in which this is pretty clearly how it was structured, although I cannot say that it was a universal rather than a local thing. There is also an exception to the above norm, which we will see this next year: the Feast of the Circumcision is always on January 1, so when the first of two Sundays after Christmas falls on January 1, it is the Feast of the Circumcision that is celebrated.)

Sunday after the Glorious Birth
2 Corinthians 11:1-11; Matthew 23:29-24:2

The Word of God Himself was made flesh,
from the Virgin Mary He was born;
He took the Church for His spotless Bride.
If any preaches another Christ,
he does not bring the good news of Christ,
he does not bring the Spirit of Christ,
he beguiles like a cunning serpent.

Israel's saints prepared for His birth,
Abraham, David, and the prophets;
He is the Lamb upon God's high throne.
If any preaches another Christ,
he does not bring the good news of Christ,
he does not bring the Spirit of Christ,
he beguiles like a cunning serpent.

He is greater than angels on high;
He is King of kings and Lord of lords;
He is the good and loving Shepherd.
If any preaches another Christ,
he does not bring the good news of Christ,
he does not bring the Spirit of Christ,
he beguiles like a cunning serpent.

From the Father He has come to us;
of the Father He is the icon;
save through Him the Spirit does not come.
If any preaches another Christ,
he does not bring the good news of Christ,
he does not bring the Spirit of Christ,
he beguiles like a cunning serpent.

Christ our Lord upon the cross was hung
to raise us to salvation and joy;
in His holy martyrs He is seen.
If any preaches another Christ,
he does not bring the good news of Christ,
he does not bring the Spirit of Christ,
he beguiles like a cunning serpent.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz


Opening Passage:

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice's Lenten fast in the desert.

Summary: The story starts with Lenten vigil. Brother Francis is out in the desert discerning whether he has a vocation to the Albertian Order of Leibowitz when a brief series of interactions with an old Jewish wanderer leads him to discover a Fallout Survival Shelter, possibly associated with Blessed Leibowitz himself. In Part I of the Canticle we get the humorous story of the somewhat hapless Francis and one of the relics found in the shelter, a blueprint signed with Leibowitz's own name, entitled 'Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B'.

Part I ("Fiat Homo") occurs several hundred years after the Flame Deluge, the nuclear apocalypse that laid the world waste and created a Dark Age. Part II ("Fiat Lux") opens in 3174, with the rise of the empire of Texarkana and a new Enlightenment. There are wars and rumors of wars, but Thon Taddeo, the illegitimate cousin of Hannegan, the emperor of Texarkana,is interested in other rumors, namely, that the Abbey of St. Leibowitz has physics texts from the twentieth century. When he gets to the monastery after the dangerous trip, escorted by Hannegan's guard, he finds himself in for a shock: one of the monks of the monastery has invented a fantastic machine that he has only just barely conceived the theory for.

Part III ("Fiat Voluntas Tua") opens in 3781, and again there are wars and rumors of wars, this time nuclear. A nuclear explosion has created a profound need for medical camps, and the Abbey of St. Leibowitz opens its grounds for the purpose. But there is almost immediately a conflict between the Catholic abbey and the medical authorities over the practice of euthanasia, and it appears that the underlying nuclear tension is getting worse.

Each part poses an objection to the monks of St. Leibowitz -- How can they waste their time with something as trivial and useless as texts? How can they stand in the way of scientific progress? How can they stand in the way of mercy? But the monks merely continue on, as the objections fade into other objections and the challenges of one age give way to the challenges of another. They hold the line, as best they can in their fallible ways, enduring as they always have.

A consistent theme throughout is that states tend to arrogate to themselves ever-increasing power, without limit, effectively divinizing themselves, and that in the process of doing so, they destroy themselves. We get this in Part I with what we learn about the Flame Deluge, in Part II with the rise of Hannegan, and in Part III with the conflict between Church and state on matters like euthanasia. In every age Caesar tries to usurp the place of God -- may even apparently succeed for a while -- and collapses through his grasping for power. The Church stands against this; but one day, perhaps, it will shake the dust off its feet (Mt 10:14).

Favorite Passage: There are a number of good ones, but this one jumped out this reading:

There were spaceships again in that century, and the ships were manned by fuzzy impossibilities that walked on two legs and sprouted tufts of hair in unlikely anatomical regions. They were a garrulous kind. They belonged to a race quite capable of admiring its own image in a mirror, and equally capable of cutting its own throat before the altar of some tribal god, such as the deity of Daily Shaving. It was a species which often considered itself to be, basically, a race of divinely inspired toolmakers; any intelligent entity from Arcturus would instantly have perceived them to be, basically, a race of impassioned after-dinner speechmakers.

It was inevitable, it was manifest destiny, they felt (and not for the first time) that such a race go forth to conquer the stars. To conquer them several times, if need be, and certainly to make speeches about the conquest. But, too, it was inevitable that the race succomb again to the old maladies on new worlds, even as on Earth before, in the litany of life and in the special liturgy of Man: Versicles by Adam, Rejoinders by the Crucified.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Exemplar Cause

In order to develop a life that is no less than a participation in the life of God, we must strive as far as is possible, to live a divine life. Hence, the need we had of a divine model. As St. Augustine remarks, men whom we see were too imperfect to serve us as a pattern and God, who is holiness itself, was too far beyond our gaze. Then, the eternal Son of God, His living image, became man and showed us by His example how man could here on earth approach the perfection of God. Son of God and son of man, He lived a Godlike life and could say: "Who seeth me seeth the Father." Having revealed the holiness of God in His actions, He can present to us as practical the imitation of the divine perfections: "Be you therefore perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect." Therefore, the Eternal Father proposes Him to us as our model. At His baptism and His transfiguration He said: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Because he is well pleased in Him, the Eternal Father wills that we imitate His only-begotten Son....At bottom the Gospel is no more than a relation of the deeds and traits of our Lord's sacred person proposed to us as a model for our imitation: "Jesus began to do and to teach." Christianity in turn is nothing more than the imitation of Christ. St. Paul gave this as the sum-total of all our duties: "Be ye followers of me as I also am of Christ."

Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, 2nd ed., tr. by Herman Branderis, Society of St. John the Evangelist (Tournai, Belgium: 1930?) pp. 72-73.

Maronite Year XI

Christmas needs no introduction, of course. But in the Maronite liturgical year it touches off a series of themes for the next several days (at least, those not taken up by some more important feast or memorial): Praises to the Virgin Mary Mary, The Visit of the Magi, Holy Innocents and the Flight to Egypt, Return from Egypt to Nazareth.

Feast of the Glorious Birth of Our Lord
Hebrews 1:1-12; Luke 2:1-20

The Just One is revealed to Zion like the dawn;
the Deliverer of Jerusalem shines out.
All the nations shall see Him, His glory.
The Lord upholds His royal diadem.
No longer are we forsaken; we are loved.

Once we were duped by falsehood, enslaved by passions,
but the Savior from God dawned on us with great love.
He saved us through His merciful design,
with His power He gives us a new birth,
and His grace restores us through the Holy Spirit.

A child is born to us; His name is "Wonderful",
for God is wonderful who comes to us a child.
A shining star has risen from Jacob,
a leader for all comes from Israel.
In David's town a Savior has been born for us.

God in flesh has dawned upon His creation,
the Word has tabernacled among His people.
Before, God spoke His words through the prophets;
Now, He speaks to us through His holy Son,
who shines with splendor in the brilliance of glory.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Radio Greats: Crossroads of Christmas (The Family Theater)

The Family Theater, founded by Fr. Patrick Peton, CSC, to encourage family prayer (hence its still-not-forgotten tagline, "The family that prays together, stays together"), was in many ways the most successful and mainstream religious program of the Golden Age of Radio. It is not at all surprising, then, that it has a number of very good Christmas episodes.

One of these episodes is "Crossroads of Christmas", from December 17, 1952. It's from a familiar genre -- portraying the Nativity story from an outside perspective -- but it has a number of nice twists, presented in an understated way, that distinguish it a bit from other stories of that kind. It's a story of two families -- one, a family that is far from home and in need of shelter, and another, the family that lends them a bit of help, who are having difficulty with their hot-headed and anti-Roman adopted son. We know, of course, the Son of one of the families; but the real kick in the story is that we know the son of the other family, too....

You can listen to "Crossroads of Christmas" on in three different formats, at the Retro-OTR Podcast (note that they have spoilers in their description), or on YouTube thanks to Dennis Morrison:

From World's End to World's End

Mind-enlightening is the influence that dwells in her; set high apart; one in its source, yet manifold in its operation; subtle, yet easily understood. An influence quick in movement, inviolable, persuasive, gentle, right-thinking, keen-edged, irresistible, beneficent, kindly, gracious, steadfast, proof against all error and all solicitude. Nothing is beyond its power, nothing hidden from its view, and such capacity has it that it can pervade the minds of all living men; so pure and subtle an essence is thought. Nothing so agile that it can match wisdom for agility; nothing can penetrate this way and that, etherial as she. Steam that ascends from the fervour of divine activity, pure effluence of his glory who is God all-powerful, she feels no passing taint; she, the glow that radiates from eternal light, she, the untarnished mirror of God's majesty, she, the faithful image of his goodness. Alone, with none to aid her, she is all-powerful; herself ever unchanged, she makes all things new; age after age she finds her way into holy men's hearts, turning them into friends and spokesmen of God. Her familiars it is, and none other, that God loves. Brightness is hers beyond the brightness of the sun, and all the starry host; match her with light itself, and she outvies it; light must still alternate with darkness, but where is the conspiracy can pull down wisdom from her throne? Broad is her sweep from world's end to world's end, and everywhere her gracious ordering manifests itself.

Wisdom 7:22-8:1 (Knox translation)

Radio Greats: A Stable in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Matinee Theater)

Matinee Theater was geared to cater to one of the most difficult radio slots to fill, that of Sunday afternoon, when the audience was highly diverse and often consisted of families looking for something special, and also appropriate to the day. Matinee Theater attempted to fill the gap by providing serious live dramas with wide appeal. It had actually started out as show called Dangerously Yours, starring Victor Jory, and had expanded its repertoire and changed its name, although it kept Jory on, in an attempt to appeal more broadly.

"A Stable in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania" was deliberately written to be a modern example of the old genre of the miracle play, about the interventions of saints and angels in the lives of people. It aired on Christmas Eve 1944 and opens with two old men dining at a fancy club on Christmas Eve and scrooging it up over the foolishness of Christmas commercialism and the popular belief in the myth of the Christmas story. But their waiter happens to remark that it's not a myth at all. In fact, it just happened again a year ago....

You can listen to "A Stable in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania" at the Internet Archive (episode 10). (It is also here as 144.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O God-with-us, our King and Legislator,
Hope of the nations, and Savior of them:
come to save us, Lord, our God.

Radio Greats: The Plot to Overthrow Christmas (Columbia Workshop)

Norman Corwin had many extraordinary successes in radio, but one success that was extraordinary even for Corwin was "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas". It grew from a single question; put on the spot to come up with an idea for a Christmas, he said, "Did you hear about the plot to overthrow Christmas?" It grew into a performance on December 25, 1938. It was an instant hit, and Corwin would produce the radio play again in 1940 and in 1944. A television reading was done in 1969.

The show is a whimsical fantasy in free rhyme, which takes some getting used to, but despite the whimsy (to the point of goofiness, at times), it is less saccharine than one might think. We start the programming by descending into Hell, where we meet up with Mephistopheles the Devil, consulting with a number of villains about a very serious problem for the fiends of Hell: the good cheer and good will of the Christmas season. They eventually decide on a plan (proposed by Lucrezia Borgia) to assassinate Santa Claus, with the Emperor Nero getting the honors for doing the deed. But Santa's wits turn out to be more than a match for Nero, and turn an attempted assassination, quite surprisingly, into a tale of repentance and fellowship.

You can listen to the 1940 version of the radio play on and you can read the transcript at Generic Radio Workshop Script Library, complete with Corwin's own production notes. It would be a bit of goofy fun to throw together a reading over Christmas, if that's your sort of thing.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of Nations, and their Desire,
and cornerstone making two one,
come and save man,
whom you formed from clay.

Radio Greats: The Big Little Jesus (Dragnet)

Dragnet, starring Jack Webb, was an extraordinarily successful radio program that went on to be an extraordinarily successful television program. Webb had been successful in radio for years when he came up with the idea for the show: a depiction of a police detective, as authentic as possible, showing them as working-class heroes. Realism with respect turned out to be a powerful formula for a police drama, and because of it Dragnet has set the standard all police dramas have been trying to achieve ever since. One of the most inspired decisions was to make the hero of the show Everyman -- Sergeant Joe Friday is every policeman who does his job, which is why in one episode he's in Vice and in another he might be in Homicide and in another he might be in Robbery or in Auto Theft. The entire style of the show was to underplay everything, so it can be easy to miss, but an immense amount of work went into getting even tiny matters right. An example of this is the sound effects, which are done brilliantly and in unusual quantities for a radio show of its day; the show had a team of sound effects experts, and they were expected to get their sound effects exactly right, so that if Friday walked from one room into another in police headquarters, the number of footsteps that could be heard had to be the number it would take really to walk from one room into another in police headquarters. The sound effects almost never put themselves forward -- but as a constant background they contribute immensely to the realism of the show. The entire show was like that.

The program ran on radio from 1949 to 1957, becoming a major fixture in American culture. (It is the single reason most Americans learned what an A.P.B. is, for instance.) During that time, it dealt with difficult, edgy issues like drug trafficking, prostitution, rape, and murder. But one of the strengths of Dragnet is that it wasn't about edginess: it was about honest work-a-day policemen doing their job in ways that made us all better off. And so they handled smaller issues, too, and the cases where the world turns out to be a little better than you might have thought.

Such a case is "The Big Little Jesus", from December 22, 1953, one of the most famous Dragnet radio episodes, on which was based one of the most popular of the Dragnet television episodes. Sgt. Friday and his partner, Frank Smith, are working Day Watch out of Burglary Division when they get called to the Old Mission Church, which serves the small and poor Mexican community of Los Angeles. When there they learn that the Jesus statue has been stolen from the church's Nativity scene. It's not worth much dollar-wise, but the church has had it for thirty-one years. Friday and Smith promise Fr. Rojas to do their best to find it in time for the first mass for Christmas, which leaves very little time to discover it....

You can listen to the episode at the Internet Archive here (where it's episode 221), or here (where it's episode 209). You can also read the transcript for the episode at the Generic Workshop Radio Script Library.

Monday, December 21, 2015

O Oriens

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Rising,
brilliance of eternal light, and Sun of justice,
come, and enlighten those seated in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Radio Greats: Dog Star (Suspense)

Suspense is certainly the powerhouse of the Golden Age of Radio, lasting from 1942 to 1962, so popular that it was able to last against the rising power of TV better than almost any other program -- and the day it (with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar) went off the air, September 30, 1962, is often called the last day of the Golden Age. With such a long and popular run, it was inevitable that it would have a number of Christmas episodes.

Such is "Dog Star", from December 22, 1957. It's a charming story in which a little girl's wish for a dog lands her in the middle of the Space Race between the USA and the USSR. Since it is Suspense, you cannot expect it to be all fun and games. There is death, for instance. And one should consider the context, too. On October 4 of that very same year, the USSR had launched Sputnik 1, stunning the rest of the world, and upsetting the USA's complacency about being the technologically superior nation. On November 3, 1957, Sputnik 2 was launched, carrying Laika, the first dog in space. The possibility of the Soviets continuing their successful streak was itself a matter of more anxiety and fear -- and suspense -- than one might imagine.

The episode stars Evelyn Rudie, notable for being one of the most successful child actors of all time. She's seven years old here, but already a professional, having been nominated for an Emmy the year before. She would later go on to be an extremely successful playwright, stage actress, and costume designer.

You can listen to "Dog Star" at the Internet Archive (it's episode 695) or here, courtesy of Southbridge Old Time Radio:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel,
who opens, and none closes,
who closes, and none opens:
come, and draw out the chained from the prison-house,
those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

Maronite Year X

Throughout the Season of Announcement we have been getting closer and closer to the Birth of Christ, so it might at first seem odd that the Sunday closest to Christmas we are suddenly talking about the genealogy back to Abraham. But if you grow up in a Middle Eastern culture, and look at what people know about you, the first thing they know about you is your family. It is one of the most basic ways in which we locate each other in the world -- that A is the son of B, who is cousin to C, who married D, that guy from the town across the way. And in a culture in which names tend to repeat a lot -- there would have been many Yeshua's -- there is nothing better to narrow down exactly who is meant than genealogy.

Much of the imagery of the Maronite liturgy on this Sunday is concerned with the hidden mystery throughout the ages -- for so long as it were in secret God had prepared this day, and when it is revealed, even angels are not fully prepared for the greatness of the deed, whereby God, to fulfill his promises to a family of mortal animals, became a member of the family.

Sunday of the Genealogy of Jesus
Romans 1:1-12; Matthew 1:1-17

Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David,
the Son of Abraham, in fullness of time
was born of Mary, the Mother of the Light,
the wife of Joseph of the House of David.

Tradition of blood, tradition of promise,
tradition of covenant and legacy,
succession of generations in their hopes:
simple human lives grow into mystery.

Christ was descended from David by the flesh;
by resurrection he was proclaimed God's Son.
In Jesus we are made heirs of Abraham,
not merely by flesh but by God's own promise.

Angels and guardians of heaven rejoice;
they take cheer in the glory of the upright.
From human generations comes mystery,
one beyond even the angels of heaven.

Heaven came down and is found in a dark cave;
the new throne is a manger at which beasts feed.
Joseph and Mary are like the wheels of fire,
and the Babe that they carry is the Lord God.

Our Lord is a ruler from everlasting;
though He was God in nature, He did not grasp,
but bowed Himself low and became a servant:
the mystery hidden for long is revealed.

People walking in darkness have seen great light;
out of Bethlehem of David day has dawned.
With singing we rejoice in Christ's victory:
a child is born to us, a son is given.

The Son of David shall rule the world with peace,
the Son of Abraham bring hope to Gentiles.
Even the hosts of heaven are in wonder,
even we to whom it is shown are amazed.

O Lord, grant us the faithfulness that endured
through generation after generation;
O Lord, give grace unto us as you gave grace
through generation after generation.

O Lord, who took a body from the Virgin,
in this dark world nourish the people you save.
Lord of light, born of Mary, Mother of Light,
dispel the mortal darkness of faithlessness.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who stands a sign for the people,
before you kings will shut their mouths,
of you the nations will beg pardon:
come to free us, and tarry no longer.

Confucian Four Books Index

The Analects (Lun Yu)
Book I
Books II-III
Books IV-VI
Books VII-X
Books XI-XII
Books XIX-XX

The Mencius (Mengzi)
Book I
Book II
Book III
Book IV
Book V
Book VI
Book VII

The Great Learning (Da Xue)
Part I
Part II

The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhong Yong)
Part I
Part II
Part III

Friday, December 18, 2015

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord, and Ruler of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush,
and also gave the law to him on Sinai,
come to redeem us with outstretched arm.

Zhong Yong (Part III)

Chapter XXI-XXVI

Chapter XX had raised the issue of cheng, usually translated as 'sincerity' and meaning something like 'being true to one's human nature'. Chapter XXI takes this theme and begins the final line of development of the book, as we begin to learn the nature of the true sage, summarizing the essential principle that studious reflection or intelligence and sincerity interrelate. Some people, the sages, are such that being true to their nature issues without impediment into studious reflection; others there are whose studious reflection brings about their being true to their nature. Zhu Xi takes the next twelve chapters to comment directly on this.

Chapter XXII connects sincerity to the Confucian thesis of moral influence, and also the beginning of the claim that this moral influence is of cosmic scope. Sincerity is what allows one to express fully one's true nature. This allows one to influence others in the full expression of their true nature. In doing this, the wholly sincere can develop the true natures of animals and other things. In doing that, one can develop the elements and forces of Heaven and Earth; and in doing that, one becomes a triad with Heaven and Earth. The influence on other human beings obviously occurs by example and teaching. Zhu Xi suggests that the influence on animals and other things consists of coming to know them and giving them an appropriate role to play in one's own activities. In essence, we might say, the sincere person gives even the nonhuman world a moral destiny and value. Thus the Way of the Sage as it were unites the Way of Heaven and the Way of Earth.

But even those who have not yet attained this level of sincerity may be doing great things, by cultivating the sprouts of goodness in their nature in such a way that they may become sincere (XXIII). As this incipient sincerity develops, it begins expressing itself outwardly; in doing so, it becomes something that can be an example and lesson to others, moving them. The influence of the sage is that toward which this process tends.

Sincerity gives its possessor the ability to divine matters of good and bad, like a spiritual being (XXIV); sincerity is what it is to be complete as a self and therefore is the end to which the self is directed, but it also overflows into others by way of moral authority and knowledge (XXV). This sincerity is thus ceaselessly active which gives it endurance; endurance gives it an expansive self-expression capable of incorporating everything simply by manifesting itself, and it is this that makes the sage an equal of Heaven and Earth (XXVI). Without showiness, it shows forth; without moving, it moves; without trying, it succeeds (XXVI).

Chapter XXVII

Chapter XXVII gives a famous praise of the Way of the Sage. Like water in the water-cycle, the influence of the sage goes out to all things on Earth and even rises to Heaven. All rules of ritual and propriety merely express facets of the sage's Dao, and it is the person of propriety and moral authority that walks it. Because of this, the noble who seek to attain this Way attempt to develop themselves through study and self-reflection according to the Mean discussed earlier in the work, and do so no matter the social positions they happen to occupy.

The Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, the seventeenth century Jesuit commentary on the Four Books, takes the description of the cosmic significance of the sage as a possible prophecy of Jesus Christ. This is the sort of thing one would not find in modern scholarship on Chinese philosophy, of course, but it is worth noting as (1) an early attempt to identify a connection between Chinese and Christian approaches, namely, by suggesting that what the Confucians speak about when they talk about the sage, Christians find in Christ; and (2) perceived links like this are what originally led to the spread of interest in Confucian philosophy in Europe, and the eventual result of Confucius, however understood or misunderstood, becoming a household name in the West.


The next chapters of the work comment on various features of Chapter XXVII. Chapters XXVIII and XXIX gives illustrations relevant to the sage and the noble being such in a way appropriate to their social positions. (There seems to be considerable confusion among commentators as to what is meant by "these three things" at the beginning of Chapter XXIX, because there isn't anything to which they obvious refer. Legge notes that some suggest that it means the ways of the three ancient kings; that Zhu Xi takes them to mean the prerogatives of kings mentioned in Chapter XXVIII; and that others, including himself, take them to mean virtue, station, and time.)

Chapters XXX through XXXII eulogize Confucius as an example of the sage. (Like Chapter II, it for an unknown reason refers to Confucius by a relatively uncommon name.) He brought forward the traditions of ancient times; he acted in harmony with Heaven above and in harmony with Earth below. His influence went everywhere, as one would expect from the description of the sage in Chapter XXVII. Chapter XXXI in particular gives a long list of attributes of a sage. Chapter XXXII returns us to the link between cheng or sincerity and the Way of the sage.

Chapter XXXIII

Zhu Xi, quite plausibly, takes the last chapter to serve as a compendious summary of the rest of the work. It consists of quotations from the Book of Odes that provides images which are then in commentary applied to the noble and the sage. The noble are not flashy or showy, preferring substance over style. The excellence of the noble lies in an activity no one can see -- careful self-examination. This forms their characters even when they seem to be doing nothing. But this does not imply that they have no influence; indeed, they can move others without having to resort to rewards and punishments, simply by example and advice. Through the virtues of the noble, others achieve peace and happiness. This is, in fact, the most complete form of moral authority possible, the one that makes the virtuous like Heaven itself: by an activity that is not seen or heard, their effects extend onward without limit.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

O Sapientia

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, who comes forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from end to end,
mightily and sweetly disposing all,
come to teach us the way of prudence.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Music on My Mind

Frank Sinatra, "Fly Me to the Moon". December 12 was the 100th anniversary of Sinatra's birthday, which is why it's been on my mind; this happens to be one of my favorite Sinatra tunes. The song itself predates Sinatra; written in the 1950s, it was originally called "In Other Words". It was a commonly used jazz and cabaret theme, but its popularity began to skyrocket with the version by Peggy Lee in 1960. (Here it is sung by Peggy Lee in 1984, while she was in her sixties.) Joe Harnell's bossa nova version made it an instrumental favorite (and won a Grammy). But Sinatra's 1964 version has become the standard. Part of it is quality -- Sinatra's no slouch, and the accompaniment's by Count Basie -- but to a great extent it's a matter of timing. It was the version used by the Apollo program, the one played in orbit around the moon by Apollo 10 and played on the moon by Apollo 11. It was the version for the days when we were actually flying to the moon.

Sinatra and Lee are both hard versions to beat, but there are times when I like Olivia Ong's very, very laid back version best.

Lying Scenarios

Gerald Dworkin has a piece on lying at The Stone. Dworkin, as he notes, is angling toward arguing that "we could not lead our lives if we never told lies — or that if we could it would be a much worse life". (Needless to say, I think this is certainly false on general principles, and I think even if it were true, the "much worse" would likely be practically impossible to prove, given that human ingenuity can find ways not to lie in order to get similar or even better results in many situations.) He defines lying in this way:

John lies to Mary if he says X, believes X to be false, and intends that Mary believe X.

As it stands, this doesn't work, since I may say X without representing X as true, or in a context in which it need not be taken as true. We also get complications with regard to in-persona statements -- perhaps John says X, believing it to be false, because he has a legal or moral responsibility to convey a message from somebody else, but no obligation to believe the message; perhaps he even makes clear that he himself doesn't believe it. If he did however intend that Mary believe X, is that enough to make this a case of lying? That is, lying has to be a way of speaking falsely, and there seems good reason to think that says-but-believes-false accounts are not adequate accounts of what it is to speak falsely about something. Dworkin himself goes on to characterize lying as "saying what you believe to be false in order to make other people believe something false"; but the definition he gives has no 'in order to' -- the intent that Mary believe could be incidental to the saying, for instance. (Another potential problem: what if John says X to Mary, knowing it to be false, but knowing that Mary will know he is lying, and he deliberately does this with the intention that Mary will believe some other likely alternative Y, which John also knows to be false! That is, what if the deception is oblique, rather than straightforward?)

In any case, he goes on to give a list of possible scenarios, asking his commenters at The Stone to say whether they regard them as permissible or impermissible. Whenever we deal with scenarios, we have to be on the lookout for sleight-of-hand or illusions created by wording. In several cases here, for instance, we are dealing with situations in which just a slight change of wording could change entirely whether there was even anything false. (10) is a really good example of this:

10. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement.

We obviously heap praise on children for attempting difficult things, and do so all the time, and there's nothing obviously false about that, so it could sound like it's perfectly fine. And sometimes we might call this 'exaggerated praise', where that means, 'we work to make it very, very clear', like giving an exaggerated emphasis to something so that nobody misses it. But 'exaggerated praise' in this context has to mean that we are not praising the children for doing well given the difficulty, but in ways that we have reason to think they don't deserve. It's not clear that we actually do this all the time; and it's not clear how lying to children about how good they are at something actually relates to future practice in real life. (It is notorious, for instance, that children who are over-praised for things that they didn't work hard for tend to expect that things will come easily and stop working hard.)

And there are the usual issues of interpretation:

9. I am negotiating for a car with a salesperson. He asks me what the maximum I am prepared to pay is. I say $15,000. It is actually $20,000.

In the case of (9), I don't think people usually have so precise a notion of what the maximum they are prepared to pay are, and we are explicitly dealing with a negotiation. The answer could just as easily be interpreted as "let's assume for the sake of this negotiation, or at this stage of the negotiation, that it's $15000" rather than "in absolute terms, $15000".

(8) is particularly interesting:

8. In order to test whether arthroscopic surgery improved the conditions of patients’ knees a study was done in which half the patients were told the procedure was being done but it was not. Little cuts were made in the knees, the doctors talked as if it were being done, sounds were produced as if the operation were being done. The patients were under light anesthesia. It turned out that the same percentage of patients reported pain relief and increased mobility in the real and sham operations. The patients were informed in advance that they either would receive a real or a sham operation.

In (8) we are dealing with the same kind of situation as if someone were to say, "What's going to happen to you next will be either a play or a real-life situation, and we won't tell you which, because we want to compare the two." There's no clear intent for anyone to believe something false -- we've already stated that it might be false. And for what we're doing it doesn't really seem to matter whether patients believe it's a sham or not. This is another case where the distinctions noted above can matter.

Another issue that comes up in several cases is that the lying is actually just an element of a more general activity (comforting someone, for instance) which is obviously good, so that we have to be wary of confusing "The general kind of action is good" with "Doing it this particular way is good".

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Radio Greats: We Hold These Truths

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is in a great measure the father of American thought about the Bill of Rights. Prior to Roosevelt, the ten amendments making up the Bill of Rights were only rarely thought of as a unit, although they were all ratified together on December 15, 1791, and although they were ratified in order to supply the lack of a constitutional bill of rights. But Roosevelt repeatedly used the Bill of Rights as a summary of the opposition in way of life between the United States and nations like Germany under Hitler. In light of this, it's unsurprising that the Roosevelt administration wanted to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights in a big way. So they asked producer Norman Corwin to work out a major radio celebration for December 15, 1941.

Nobody knew how major it would be. On December 7, 1941, as Corwin was starting to pull together the threads for the December 15th broadcast, the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor; Germany declared war on December 11. When the program, "We Hold These Truths", aired live as planned on December 15, literally half the population of the United States tuned in -- over 60 million people, the single largest audience for any single dramatic performance in history. And that does not, of course, count any of the audience listening in later to recorded versions.

It is a star-studded hour-long program, with some of the most notable actors in the history of radio. Jimmy Stewart is the narrator; the cast includes Lionel Barrymore (best known today for his performance as Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life), Orson Welles, Walter Brennan, Marjorie Main, and Edward G. Robinson. Its orchestral score was composed by Bernard Herrman (one of the most successful writers for music for the movies) and provided by Leopold Stokowski (best known today for Disney's Fantasia) with the New York Philharmonic. And it ends with a live address from President Roosevelt himself.

One of the interesting things is the light it sheds on how American values were understood in the 40s, particularly when they start looking at the particular amendments. For instance, the interpretation given to the Second Amendment is that it guarantees that the government can't bully the people without a fight.

You can listen to "We Hold These Truths" online at the Internet Archive.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Maronite Year IX

Nimatullah Kassab al-Hardini (1808-1858), or Nemetallah El-Hardini, is one of the Maronite saints on the universal Catholic calendar. He joined the Lebanese Maronite Order and taught at their seminary; several important Maronite figures, including St. Sharbel, were his students. He lived the life of an exemplary monk and was widely regarded as a saint in his own lifetime. He was beatified in 1997 and canonized in 2004.

Feast of Saint Nemetallah El-Hardini
Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 4:18-25

Your whole heart filled with love, O saint,
you worked and prayed and taught the holy truth.
A living sacrifice to God
you offered in yourself with true worship.
You thought of yourself soberly
and, gifted with teaching, you taught your faith.
You did not follow this world's ways;
instead you looked to grow in holy love.
Jesus calls to his disciples:
"I will make you fishers of men; follow."
You followed, O Nemetallah;
your net is great with the web of prayer.
Church of God, lift up your voices;
to heaven we go, prayed for by the just.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fortnightly Book, December 13

I've gone back and forth on whether to try to squeeze in one more fortnightly book this year or to wait until January, but I think I've finally settled on doing one more, although it might possibly end up being one of those three week 'fortnights'.

Walter M. Miller, Jr., was a tail gunner in the Army Air Corps in World War II, flying more than fifty bombing missions. One, however, changed his life forever.

The Allies were invading Italy, and the Germans and Italians had formed a series of very long and very fortified defensive lines across Italy. One of these lines, the Gustav line, ran right by the ancient abbey of Monte Cassino. It turned out to be an especially effective defense. In February of 1944, the U.S. began a massive bombing raid on the line. One of their objectives was the abbey itself, which they suspected might be the major observation post for German artillery targeting, which had been consistently effective. 1,150 tons of explosives were dropped, destroying the abbey. It was a complete failure; Monte Cassino was not being used by the Germans, and the Germans never had any intention of using it, despite its strategic location -- they had made an agreement not to use the abbey for military purposes and did not want to break it in case it would irritate the Italians. But when the abbey was destroyed by the Allies, the point was then moot, so they sent in paratroopers, occupied the ruins, and built it up into a fortress; the bombing had actually made things worse. Miller had been one of the ones participating in the bombing raid, and he was haunted the rest of his life by the silhouette of Monte Cassino he had seen while participating in its destruction.

After the war, Miller began writing science fiction, with some success. From 1955 to 1957 he wrote three novellas for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The three were thematically linked, but independent; however, as he was writing the third novella, he realized that he had the basic structure for a unified work. He made a fairly thorough revision of the three novellas and that became the fortnightly book, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which won the Hugo in 1961, has never been out of print, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time -- some say the best.

It is a world devastated by nuclear war. Through the ages one of the things that is constant is that States will grow up, and their power will wax, until the Caesar of the day begins once again to regard himself as if he had divine authority, and then is humbled in the dust from whence he came. But day in and day out, the monks continue at their prayers and their quiet work.

There is a famous Golden Age radio adaptation of the work. It's seven and a half hours long (in fifteen parts, I think), and very hard to find, so I don't know if I'll be listening to it, but I'll at least keep an eye out for it.

Maximes on Wisdom

The maxime was a genre of philosophical writing pioneered in the seventeenth century salons of Paris, and in particular the salon of Madeleine de Souvré, Marquise de Sablé. Sablé's salon was often the most intellectually vivacious salon of her day, and a great many new approaches to philosophy grew out of it. A maxime is a short, polished aphoristic sentence, but this does not entirely convey its character. It is properly a summation of philosophical conversation; the writing of a maxime was a collaborative exercise, in which drafts of these short sayings would be submitted to a wide variety of people and argued over until they reached a final form. If we look at the most famous of all maximes to come from Sablé's salon, those of La Rochefoucauld, there is a long drafting process behind each one, in which Sablé herself criticized and suggested revisions to La Rochefoucauld's proposal, and also sent versions to friends and acquaintances who she thought might have something to say about that particular topic, and collected their responses. Sometimes responses would be about form, devoted to eliminating logical or rhetorical awkwardnesses, or excessive complications; sometimes they would be about content, trying to get them as close to truth and clarity as possible. [Those who are interested in the historical background here might be interested in John J. Conley, SJ, The Suspicion of Virtue, which looks at a number of the salonièrres and their highly creative outside-the-box philosophical work.]

I have a lot of short aphoristic sentences built up in Dashed Off posts and notebooks. It seems to be worthwhile at least to submit them for collaborative polishing, should any be possible. So I think I will occasionally put some out and see if anyone wants to argue with them, or suggest improvements on them, or propose their own on similar topics. And so I start with a few on wisdom:

All folly is mutilated wisdom.

The young often have wisdom, but only with age can they consistently recognize it for what it is.

Without law, there is no forgiveness; without wisdom, there is no reconciliation; without love, there is no healing.

Wisdom is distilled drop by drop, as understanding is reached step by step.

The first step toward wisdom is to sit down quietly.

Goodness and wisdom naturally create traditions.

Half the power of wisdom is found in listening.

The fear of the Lord prepares for wisdom by destroying pride.

Who loves wisdom finds it everywhere.

Wisdom is fertile with measure and meaning.

Maronite Year VIII

As I noted before, the Maronite approach to Christmas draws heavily on the Gospel of Luke. But the two Sundays just before Christmas are drawn from Matthew, and they move forward toward Christmas by looking back to God's plan for Israel. Drawing from Matthew, there is an inevitable emphasis on King David: Jesus Christ, Son of David, is born of Mary, whose husband Joseph is son of David, and represents his house well by his justice.

Sunday of the Revelation to Joseph
Ephesians 3:1-13; Matthew 1:18-25

David sat before the Lord, and he said:
"Who am I, and what is my family,
that you bring us so far?
You are magnified; there is none like You;
no God can there be who is beside You;
You have done sublime things.
Of all this world's nations,
have any been redeemed like Israel,
made Your own, and saved by Your mighty hand?
You have established us,
confirmed us an everlasting people.
O Lord, fulfill Your promise to my house!"

Maiden Mary was espoused to Joseph,
but she was with child, and he was troubled;
he wished for her no harm,
and sought to shield her from an open shame.
But the angel of the Lord in dream said,
"Joseph, son of David!
Love Mary as your wife,
for she has conceived by the Spirit's might.
Her Son shall save His people from all sin."
The mystery of Christ,
once but hoped is now in fullness revealed
according to God's eternal purpose.

To be a just man is not a small thing;
in this world to do right at the right time
is to be like David.
Make us worthy, Lord God, to believe,
as Joseph believed at Your holy word,
seeking to do the right.
Like Eden's great angel,
he stood guard for Your holy Tree of life,
and for Mary, the Mother of our Lord.
To wait for the Lord God,
to abide in the presence of His Name,
is the salvation and hope of the just.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events


Opening Passage: (from The Bad Beginning, p. 1)

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.

Summary: The three Baudelaire children were playing alone on the beach one day when they are given very bad news: their house has burned down, and their parents both died in the fire. According to their parents' will, they are to be raised by a relative in the most convenient way; because of this, they are placed in the care of Count Olaf, a distant relative in blood, but a very close relative in distance, since he lives in the same city. But they have never heard of him. Count Olaf, who lives in a dirty house with carvings of eyes everywhere, is a not-at-all-pleasant man, and it becomes clear very quickly that he is out to get his dirty hands on the Baudelaire fortune. His plan for doing so is to use a little-known legal provision to marry Violet, which will give him the power to manage the fortune she stands to inherit. The Baudelaires will have to use their abilities to bite, to research, and to invent in order to get out of the mess.

The Bad Beginning is also a very simple beginning; Violet Baudelaire, the eldest, is only fourteen years old, and Sunny is barely more than a baby. Their full scope of action is quite small. But this is a recurring theme throughout the series: everyone's scope of action in the entire world is actually quite small, although it can be increased a bit by things like intrepidity, reading, and mechanical invention. Mr. Poe accomplishes nothing except what is his duty; Justice Strauss is only able to help to the extent that the Baudelaires help her to do so. The nice, decent people accomplish nothing of significance, and the villains fail -- but get away.

In the first book, the children are failed by the law. They will successively be failed by science (The Reptile Room), family (The Wide Window), industry (The Miserable Mill), education (The Austere Academy), high society (The Ersatz Elevator), community (The Vile Village), medicine (The Hostile Hospital), entertainment (The Carnivorous Carnival), their own plan (The Slippery Slope), trusted friends and allies (The Grim Grotto), themselves (The Penultimate Peril), and religion(The End -- although it is much more coyly done than the rest, which is interesting, given that Daniel Holder is himself a secular humanist). This is not particularly surprising; when we speak about any of these things, we are really speaking about what human beings do, and failing themselves and each other is one of the things human beings, sad to say, do best. (It is also not particularly surprising writing-wise, since the series drums up interest by deliberately letting standard story conventions fail on a regular basis.) But one thing does not fail, and that is the firmness with which the Baudelaires stick with each other, through thick and thin, through good and bad.

Much of the storytelling is cyclic. The same things keep happening in different variations. In parts this is handled quite well, so that you hardly notice it unless you are looking for it; in other parts, it does not work so well, as with the more formulaic books at the beginning of the series, in which the cycles are too obvious. This is a series that clearly grew with the writing. One of the flaws that creates is that the things that make the series particularly interesting arise too late with too little foreshadowing. The real appeal of the series is the V.F.D. and its schism, and we have nothing about it, beyond some very brief and very limited clues (like the dedications and vague asides by Lemony Snicket), until the tail-end of The Austere Academy (Book the Fifth). It is only with The Ersatz Elevator, which I would say is the strongest book in the series, capturing both the attractions of the earlier books but also setting up the later books, that the secrets and mysteries begin to unfold -- into other secrets and mysteries, of course, but that is precisely what makes it all interesting. For example, little clue toward the end of the series suddenly sheds a little light -- although only a little light -- on why Aunt Josephine in The Wide Window is so terrified of realtors. And learning about the differences -- and all too often non-differences -- between villains and volunteers, is really what makes it possible to get through the series.

The series is sometimes said to take a turn into moral relativism toward the end, but having read it more than once, I don't think this is at all true. The line between being a villain and being a volunteer -- between being the sort of person who starts fires, both literal and figurative, and the sort of person who puts out fires, both literal and figurative -- always remains clear. It is true that beginning with The Slippery Slope, the Baudelaires start worrying about what they are doing in order to escape the clutches of Olaf, and in particular about whether they are becoming villains themselves; and it is true that by The Penultimate Peril, their participation in villainous deeds has become clear enough. But to focus on this is to miss the point, which is made quite clear by the end. Everything becomes more complicated as the Baudelaires grow older and become more experienced. At the beginning of the series, for instance, the occasional mentions of the Baudelaire parents always place them in the glow that comes from children missing their parents. As we learn more of the role of the Baudelaire parents in the V.F.D., a few qualifications start to arise, as we wonder about their role in the schism, the theft of Esmé Squalor's sugar bowl, and, worst of all, the poison darts at the opera. Likewise, we learn that there is more to Count Olaf than one might think, and that he has a surprising amount in common with the Baudelaires. But this is simply the price of knowledge, and of the failures of the world.

Villainy and volunteering are abstract, but villains and volunteers are not. Villains may sometimes volunteer good deeds; volunteers may occasionally do villainous ones. It can sometimes be extraordinarily difficult to tell the difference, particularly since we all have our secrets, good and bad. But the difference between the two sides themselves is not blurred by this. The Baudelaires growing more uneasy about what they do in order to escape indicates a maturation of their ability to tell the difference between what is villainous and what is not. It does not change their recognition that they should not be villains. Count Olaf may have had things bad himself; but he remains unrepentant of the bad deeds he has done, a villain until the end.

For here is the thing of it. As the villains and the volunteers result from a schism in the V.F.D., so it is throughout the world. All our lives are a series of unfortunate events. They are even, over and over again in a neverending cycle of variations, the same kinds of unfortunate events -- deaths, and divisions, and confusions, and losses, and serious mistakes, and failures, and betrayals, and fires figurative and literal. We all experience the treachery of the world -- and we all contribute new treacheries to it. We all have secrets, bad as well as good. We even all use the same kinds of excuses, over and over and over again -- give the people what they want, don't rock the boat, he who hesitates is lost, we didn't have a choice, we were doing our jobs, what else could we do? Whether what we are doing is good or bad is not a matter of what team we are on, even though some teams are better to be on than others. But this is all just the way moral life is. It is not relativism; it is realism.

Thus far. But the series, of course, is unremitting and unrelenting in its pessimism, in part for the comic effect and fun of it. The regular theme is that the world is a terrible place, so one might as well be kind and noble, and to the very end it appeals to precisely that sense in the readers. But it is a weak appeal to a weak hope, and does not pretend to be anything else.

To a great extent, of course, talking about these heavy moral issues is foreign to the nature of the books. The series is not about morality. It is about reading. Morality has to come up because morality plays an ineliminable role in reading, with villains, and heroes, and all that. And morality is the heaviest kind of topic with which books deal, pretty much by definition, since all of our heaviest topics are kinds of things we call morality. But it is far from being the only thing involved in reading. There is the delight in reversal, the love of words and the play of expressions, our taste for allusions and clues, and most of all, for our love of reading itself. (This is one reason why moral relativism is impossible for the series: the pursuit of being well-read is a marker, defeasible but real, between villains and volunteers and the kinds of moral characters they have.) People often complain that The End does not solve the mysteries. There was never any intention to do so. The entire series is structured as a novel. We start with The Bad Beginning, the action rises and becomes more intricate through the next several books, until we reach Hotel Denouement in The Penultimate Peril, and, finally, find ourselves at The End. And as Lemony Snicket tells us, the beginning of a story is not an absolute beginning, nor is the end of a story an absolute end. But more than that, the series was never merely about the Baudelaires, or even, despite appearances, primarily about the Baudelaires. The series is the story of the reader reading a story about the Baudelaires. This is explicit throughout. That story began before The Beginning. And no matter what may happen to the Baudelaires or not, the end of the story of the reader reading about them does not and cannot stop with The End.

Favorite Passage: (from The End, pp. 232-233)

The sun filtered through the shade of the enormous apple tree, and shone on the gold block letters on the spine of the book. The children wondered whether the letters had been printed there by their parents, or perhaps by the previous writer of the commonplace book, or the writer before that, or the writer before that. They wondered how many stories the oddly titled history contained, and how many people had gazed at the gold lettering before paging through the crimes, follies, and misfortunes and adding more of their own, like the thin layers of an onion. As they walked out of the arboretum, led by their clay-footed facilitator, the Baudelaire orphans wondered about their own unfortunate history, and that of their parents and all the other castaways who washed up on the shores of the island, adding chapter upon chapter to A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Recommendation: Recommended.


Quotations from:

Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning, HarperCollins (New York: 1999).

Lemony Snicket, The End, Egmont (London: 2006).

Friday, December 11, 2015

They're 'Bout What Everybody Knows

Hard Luck
by Edgar Guest

Ain’t no use as I can see
In sittin’ underneath a tree
An’ growlin’ that your luck is bad,
An’ that your life is extry sad;
Your life ain’t sadder than your neighbor’s
Nor any harder are your labors;
It rains on him the same as you,
An’ he has work he hates to do;
An’ he gits tired an’ he gits cross,
An’ he has trouble with the boss;
You take his whole life, through an’ through,
Why, he’s no better off than you.

If whinin’ brushed the clouds away
I wouldn’t have a word to say;
If it made good friends out o’ foes
I’d whine a bit, too, I suppose;
But when I look around an’ see
A lot o’ men resemblin’ me,
An’ see ’em sad, an’ see ’em gay
With work t’ do most every day,
Some full o’ fun, some bent with care,
Some havin’ troubles hard to bear,
I reckon, as I count my woes,
They’re ’bout what everybody knows.

The day I find a man who’ll say
He’s never known a rainy day,
Who’ll raise his right hand up an’ swear
In forty years he’s had no care,
Has never had a single blow,
An’ never known one touch o’ woe,
Has never seen a loved one die,
Has never wept or heaved a sigh,
Has never had a plan go wrong,
But allas laughed his way along;
Then I’ll sit down an’ start to whine
That all the hard luck here is mine.

One of the reasons for all the Guest poems recently is that Edgar Guest is sharply criticized by Lemony Snicket, especially in The Grim Grotto, who describes him as "a writer of limited skill, who wrote awkward, tedious poetry on hopelessly sentimental topics", and in which the villains wear Edgar Guest badges. But it's only in reading him a bit more recently that I've realized how many optimistic poems Guest has -- I've only posted a handful -- which, of course, cuts entirely against the melancholy pessimism of the Lemony Snicket persona. He certainly wouldn't say that the misfortunes of the Baudelaire orphas are "'bout what everybody knows"! So it's perhaps not surprising that Lemony Snicket hates Edgar Albert Guest.

But he makes a good poet for times of grading!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Political Syllogism

Every State contains in itself three Powers, the universal united Will of the People being thus personified in a political triad. These are the Legislative Power, the Executive Power, and the Judiciary Power.—1. The Legislative Power of the Sovereignty in the State, is [166] embodied in the person of the Lawgiver; 2. the Executive Power is embodied in the person of the Ruler who administers the Law; and 3. the Judiciary Power, embodied in the person of the Judge, is the function of assigning every one what is his own, according to the Law (Potestas legislatoria, rectoria et judiciaria). These three Powers may be compared to the three propositions in a practical Syllogism:—the Major as the sumption laying down the universal Law of a Will, the Minor presenting the command applicable to an action according to the Law as the principle of the subsumption, and the Conclusion containing the Sentence or judgment of Right in the particular case under consideration.

Immanuel Kant, Science of Right

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Just Start in to Sing as You Tackle the Thing

It Couldn't Be Done
by Edgar Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;”
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

I am immersed in a sea of grading this week and into the next, so things should be fairly light around here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Metaphor and Knowledge

Analogy of proportion is the basis of the figure of speech known as metaphor. It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that what is thus analogically predicated of a number of things belongs intrinsically and properly only to one of them, being transferred by a mere extrinsic denomination to the others; and that therefore it does not express any genuine knowledge on our part about the nature of these other things. It does give us real knowledge about them. Metaphor is not equivocation; but perhaps more usually it is understood not to give us real knowledge because it is understood to be based on resemblances that are merely fanciful, not real. Still, no matter how slender and remote be the proportional resemblance on which the analogical use of language is based, in so far forth as it has such a real basis it gives us real insight into the nature of the analogues. And if we hesitate to describe such a use of language as "metaphorical," this is only because "metaphor" perhaps too commonly connotes a certain transferred and improper extension of the meaning of terms, based upon a purely fanciful resemblance.

Peter Coffey, Ontology, pp. 38-39.

Maronite Year VII

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception does not have a distinctive liturgical celebration in the Maronite calendar. However, they do celebrate it. The way in which they do so brings a bit of the Season of Pentecost into the Season of Announcement. In the Season of Pentecost, the calendar goes into a cycle of commemorations (actually two cycles, Week A and Week B, which alternate), with each day of the week having its own theme. Wednesdays are the commemorations for the Virgin Mary, and so any special Marian feasts throughout the year not already given their liturgical celebration use one of the two commemorations for the Wednesday of Pentecost.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception
Hebrews 7:11-17; Luke 11:27-32


Our Lord on the cross a great gift gave us;
Mary He made the Mother of the Church.
We turn to you, O Mother; intercede!
May the Word who dwelt in you dwell in us;
may He who took His true body from you
make us His true Body through your prayers.

On His cross, Christ carried the human race;
you, O Mary, carried Christ crucified.
In your womb, in your heart, you carried Him.
Through you He fulfilled prophetic promise
made to Abraham, Judah, and David.
You gave to us our High Priest; intercede!

Blessed are you above all women on earth,
blessed be God who by you gave a great blow,
striking the head of the old enemy.
Your deed of hope we will always recall,
for you, fountain of mysteries, are pure.
Thus we are astonished and worship God.

You had baptism's grace from the beginning.
You gave birth to Him because you believed;
you heard the word and had a pure faith.
That faith made you Mother of the Word!
Our Lord on the cross a great gift gave us;
Mary He made the Mother of the Church.


By your Yes, O maiden, you made truths true.
The prophets had spoken great things to come;
through your faith those prophecies were fulfilled.
They were the words of God, who does not lie,
and by the Son you bore they were made true.

So great a thing it is to bear the Lord!
And yet your faith is greater than that deed!
As you were made our Mother on His cross,
for our defense, O Mary, intercede!

By your Yes, O maiden, you gave us light,
for Light was born from your unsullied sky.
In His light, the light of God we will see
for from you comes a Priest forevermore,
the Lamb upon the Throne, who is our Light.

So great a thing it is to bear the Lord!
And yet your faith is greater than that deed!
As you were made our Mother on His cross,
for our defense, O Mary, intercede!

Monday, December 07, 2015

Go Forward Bravely

The Future
by Edgar Guest

"The worst is yet to come:"
So wail the doubters glum,
But here's the better view;
"My best I've yet to do."

The worst some always fear;
To-morrow holds no cheer,
Yet farther on life's lane
Are joys you shall attain.

Go forward bravely, then,
And play your part as men,
For this is ever true:
"Our best we've yet to do."

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Notable Links, Linkably Noted

* A hundred years of Orson Welles

* The Turks & Caicos National Museum has a collection devoted to messages in bottles -- given the location of the islands relative to the currents, a lot of things wash up on their shores, so it's one of the places messages in bottles are most likely to end up, if they survive at all.

* C.S. Lewis’ Greatest Fiction: Convincing American Kids That They Would Like Turkish Delight

* Olga Lizzini, Ibn Sina's Metaphysics, at the SEP

* A review of some new letters by Iris Murdoch, with some brief but interesting comments on her reading of Tolkien.

* Terence Blake discusses Neal Stephenson's Anathem

* An interesting discussion of two languages that have massively richer dedicated olfactory vocabularies than most languages.

* Richard J. Ross, Binding in Conscience: Early Modern English Protestants and Spanish Thomists on Law and the Fate of the Soul

* An account of what a professional quarterback has to do to get ready for a game.

* Mar Ignace Youssif III Younan, Patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, has some sharp words for how the West has handled the Syrian situation.

* A significant number of Iraqis think that the United States is actively backing ISIS. Of course, one has only to look at the comments to see that you can find Americans who think this, too.

* I mentioned last year that there was an English translation of the official Ukrainian Greek Catholic catechism coming out at some point; it is currently on track for release in early 2016.

* I've been doing a poem cycle on the Maronite liturgical year. If you're interested in the Melkite liturgical year, the Eparchy of Newton has placed some excellent easy-to-use commentaries on it online.

Maronite Year VI

The first four Sundays of the Season of Announcement form a sort of forerunner of the Nativity, covering as they do the prophetic role of John the Baptist: his conception, the conception of the one he heralds, his first prophetic recognition of the one he heralds, and, today, his birth.

Sunday of the Birth of John the Baptizer
Galatians 4:21-5:1; Luke 1:57-66

I will send my herald, the Lord has said;
he will prepare the way before his Lord,
who will come to the Temple;
the herald of the covenant will come.

Be glad, O woman who never bore child;
rejoice and shout out with prophetic voice;
your child, a prophet, has come,
a covenant linking two covenants.

Rejoice, O woman who never bore child;
all neighbors share your resounding joy.
A sign of God's grace has come,
the bright star who goes before the promise.

By light of natural law and Torah
You prepared us for the Gospel light.
By prophets You spoke Your word
and by Your forerunner You showed Your way.

In the womb the Lord knew Jeremiah;
in the womb the prophet John knew his Lord.
None greater has woman borne
than he who preached the Christ while yet unborn.

Cry out, O woman who never bore child;
your child brings word of great liberation.
He will be the voice that speaks truth,
a fuller bleaching stained garments white.

Praise God, O woman who never bore child;
God is gracious -- let that be the boy's name.
An astounding birth is seen;
infinity breaks the bound of the world.

The child of wonder is the first token,
the first sign, of a glorious freedom;
he waits for the Lamb of God
and cries out for all to make way for God.

The Father sent John with a pure mission,
to herald the Son by word and by deed
in the prophetic Spirit;
O Holy Trinity, save us from sin.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Slippery Slope Arguments

Will Truman recently argued that slippery slope arguments have a worse reputation than they deserve; and Tod Kelly argued in response that they are in fact quite bad. Kelly's reasons for thinking them awful:

(1) SSAs are largely dishonest and lazy attempts to “magic” away strong arguments against one’s position.
(2) SSAs aren’t really tools for convincing people who disagree with you that you’re correct; they’re simply a way to preach to your own choir — while potentially shrinking it.
(3) SSAs assume a wholly static world where one does not exist.
(4) SSAs are entirely indiscriminate.

I think Kelly's argument actually shows something rather different than he thinks -- namely, that standard responses to even very poor slippery slope arguments are very poor as responses to those kinds of arguments. Part of this is that there is always a bit of a muddle about what a slippery slope argument is. There are at least three different kinds of arguments that get called slippery slope arguments:

(A) Causal extrapolations: These are what the phrase 'slippery slope' often seems to suggests to people's minds. This kind of argument is basically a causal prediction; 'if you keep doing this, you're heading to such-and-such bad consequence'.

(B) Motivational extrapolations: These are the camel's nose or thin-end-of-the-wedge arguments. They could all be summarized by the saying, 'If you give them an inch, they'll take an ell'. Unlike (1), these are estimations of political strategy, not tendencies to effects. The 'Overton Windows Move' mentioned by Truman is a good example of this kind of argument.

(C) Identifications of justificatory imprecision: These are about principles or precedents and conclusions that can be drawn given them; given such-and-such principle or precedent, there doesn't seem to be anything that prevents one from also concluding that such-and-such bad thing is good for the same reason.

There are broad features in common among the three kinds -- they all are directional, they all identify a limit that is designated as bad and thus to be avoided, and so forth -- but they are very different kinds of arguments. And it's very easy to see that Kelly's (3) is utterly irrelevant to (C)-SSAs, for instance.

Another thing that I think muddles the ground is the notion that slippery slope arguments are put forward as proofs. This is explicitly assumed by Kelly:

There is literally no position, no matter how innocuous or righteous, that a SSA can’t “prove” will lead to the end of civilization as we know it. That right there should give you some pause about its inherent worth as a tool of discourse.

But it seems very doubtful that SSAs are ever put forward as proofs. Rather, as I have argued before, they are challenges. The point is not to establish that the bad thing will happen -- (A)-SSAs and at least some (B)-SSAs are about present dispositions, not the future, and (C)-SSAs are about rational consistency, i.e., rational consequences and not causal consequences. The point is to raise the question of whether an opposing position is properly thought out in the first place.

Kelly's objection (1) actually draws on this aspect of SSAs, I think, since argumentative challenges are relatively easy to raise in comparison with a lot of other arguments, so machine-gunning challenges at a position is a relatively cheap way to argue, since a person of even mediocre ingenuity can often come up with challenges in a shorter period of time than it takes even a genius to answer them properly. Lazy reasoners do, in fact, tend to fall back on argumentative challenges. But this is a very different thing, of course, from holding that the challenges don't need to be met. Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but the cheap cost of the argument doesn't tell us anything about that. It also doesn't tell us anything about whether a given situation is one in which an argumentative challenge is perfectly justified.

And when we recognize them to be challenges, we see immediately that many of the purported problems evaporate: Kelly's (3) is simply false of SSAs taken as challenges (I think (3) makes the error of confusing causal tendency with causal result, as well, but even if this is not so, it fails to be a correct characterization of something put forward as a challenge), and his (2) is simply irrelevant (since whether a challenge is justified is not dependent on whether the challenged takes it seriously). His (1) and (4), which are the strongest objections if we treat SSAs as purported proofs, run into obvious problems if we are taking SSAs as challenges. It doesn't matter how strong you think the arguments for trying for A are; if you can't rule out that A makes bad B easier, that weakens your overall argument for trying for A. Practical arguments are not hermetically sealed; I may have a good argument for A, but I can at the same time have a good argument for avoiding A -- and what matters for practical reasoning is the overall disposition of all the arguments. You might have a crowd of good arguments that X would be good to have; but you might just have one deal-breaking argument that gives you sufficient reason to avoid X, however good it might be in other ways, because it shows that you don't actually have a way to get X without unacceptable losses or compromises or commitments.

And (4) likewise runs into problems. Obviously the general structure of an argumentative challenge is going to be indiscriminate. Argumentative challenges raise the question of whether rational standards have been properly met, and every practical policy or plan is going to have to meet rational standards if it is to be a rational policy or plan. That challenges could be raised will be taken for granted by any rational and reasonable person; precisely what makes rational and reasonable people rational and reasonable is that they work to have answers to argumentative challenges rather than just assuming that their claims are reasonable. If someone gives an argumentative challenge, there are only two possible adequate rational answers to it:

(a) We have reason to think the challenge doesn't need to be bothered with (e.g., because the purported bad consequence is not bad at all, or because the challenge is logically incoherent)
(b) We have reason to think the challenge can be met.

It's irrelevant that one can challenge everything indiscriminately; what matters is whether the challenge can in principle be answered. Merely assuming that the challenge doesn't need to be bothered with, or that it can be met, is a sign of stupidity. If, to take an example of Kelly's, you are arguing for same-sex marriage and you really cannot show, even when challenged, that the reasons you are giving for same-sex marriage do not also support the bad consequence of marriage to turtles, which you reject vehemently, you are not very bright, and have no reason to regard yourself as in any way reasonable and rational in your support for same-sex marriage; and you should possibly leave the defense of your position to people who are less stupid than you are. We are not talking a high intellectual bar here; it's literally one of the most elementary rational standards: try to reason things through in a principled rather than merely ad hoc way. If your best response to a challenge claiming that you haven't thought through your argument to the end is to say, "Why would one even think beyond this point?", it is you, not the challenge, that is the problem.

Thus Kelly's conclusion fails:

After all, there’s a word for an argument that requires no effort, little reasoning, has little if any expectation of being persuasive, and is equally good for all positions.

That word is “useless.”

This is not true if the argument in question is a challenge rather than a proof. One could very well have a perfectly rational and correct challenge that is easy to make, is unlikely to persuade the person who is challenged, and could be applied to every position -- to take the clearest and most obvious example, if your argument is holding up a basic rational standard and the person being challenged is being irrational. The existence of irrational people exempting themselves from basic rational standards does not make rational argument useless; they make it all the more necessary.(There's an irony, incidentally, and perhaps a bit of deliberate funning, in the fact that Kelly's objection (4) against slippery slope arguments is quite obviously a slippery slope argument.)

None of this is to say, of course, that all SSAs are good challenges. It's sometimes very difficult to make good challenges to arguments and positions. It is sometimes said of free verse or the fantasy genre that they are full of bad writing precisely because they are easy to write but hard to write well; and argumentative challenges are certainly easy to formulate but often difficult to formulate properly. But I think Tod Kelly's argument against SSAs captures the features of most common response to slippery slope arguments. Which is why I said that I think Kelly has really shown that standard responses to even very poor slippery slope arguments are very poor as responses to those kinds of arguments.