Saturday, May 16, 2015

Sui Juris Churches XII: The Greek Catholic Church in Slovakia

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Byzantine

Primary Liturgical Languages: Church Slavonic and Slovak

Juridical Status: Metropolitan

Approximate Population: Between 200,000 and 400,000 (Numbers seem to diverge quite a bit.)

Brief History: The Slovak Greek Catholic Church is the fourth of the particular churches arising from the Ruthenian Unions, and like all of the churches deriving from those Unions, its status as a particular church is due in part in part to the fracturing and isolating effect of first the Russian Imperial and then the Soviet persecutions that arose as Russian power grew. Like all of the particular churches of Central and Eastern Europe, Ruthenian in origin or not, its history also shows the features arising from the fact that its primary population lives in the unstable region between Christian East and Christian West.

The Union of Uzhhorod in 1649 included the bishops in what is now eastern Slovakia. When the Ruthenian eparchy of Mukacheve was removed from the authority of the Latin bishops of Hungary and given a certain measure of independence, so also was the eparchy of Prešov with it. These Ruthenian eparchies were split apart after World War II when the Soviet Union annexed Transcarpathia; Prešov was left on its own in Czechoslovakia. In 1950, however, a communist regime backed by the Soviet Union took over the Czechoslovakian government, and did what Communist regimes often did with the churches in nations they took over: forced everyone into a single church that could more easily be bullied by the state and whose hierarchy could be filled with collaborators. A puppet 'synod' was called. I put 'synod' in quotation marks because it had no bishops; it consisted of five priests and some laymen. The 'synod' signed a document declaring union with Rome at an end. All Ruthenian property was seized and transferred to the Orthodox Church. The bishop of Prešov, Pavel Gojdic, and his auxiliary, Basil Hopko, were imprisoned. Besides the Catholic community, the Jewish community protested his imprisonment (Gojdic had saved thousands of Jewish refugees in World War II, for which he has been honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among Nations). The protests were ignored, and a trial gave him a life sentence for treason. Gojdic would die in prison in 1960 and Hopko would die in 1976 after years of extremely poor health due to his treatment in prison.

In 1968 the full influence of the Soviet Union was shaken off a bit in the Prague Spring, during which reformers in the Communist Party came to power. One of the reforms was that former Greek Catholic parishes were allowed to restore communion with Rome if they wished; more than two-thirds of the parishes chose to do so. The Prague Spring itself did not even last a full year, but as it happens, the Soviets did not regard this particular point as worth their time to undo, and thus it continued, although the Greek Catholic community operated under very serious limitations -- for instance, just because they restored communion with Rome did not mean that their property could go with them, because it as officially recognized as belonging to the Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia.

In the Gentle Revolution of 1989 (called the Velvet Revolution in Czech portions of the country), Communist rule in Czechoslovakia came to an end in a surprisingly peaceful transition. One of the effects of this was the return of a considerable portion of the former Ruthenian property to the Greek Catholics of Czechoslovakia. In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Greek Catholics in the Czech Republic were organized into an Apostolic Vicariate (later an Exarchate), which is currently regarded as part of the Ruthenian Catholic Church. The Slovak eparchy of Prešov continued, and another Apostolic Exarchate, later and Eparchy, was created, along with other eparchies. In 2008, Benedict XVI raised the eparchy of Prešov to the status of a Metropolitan Archeparchy.

Notable Monuments: The Greek Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, in Preshov. There are also a number of Wooden Churches that are important cultural markers of religious life in the Carpathian regions of Europe; a number of these are in Slovakia, and several of these are Greek Catholic, of which the most important are those in Bodružal, Ruská Bystrá, and Ladomirová.

Notable Saints: As an offspring of the Ruthenian Unions, the Slovak Greek Catholic Church shares a number of saints with the Ruthenians, including saints on the Byzantine calendar. In addition, there are many beatified martyrs and confessors under the Communist regime, like Bl. Pavel Gojdic and Bl. Basil Hopko, who may end up canonized on the general calendar at some point.

Notable Religious Institutes: As with Ruthenian churches generally, Basilian orders have an important place in the life of the church.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: The Archeparchy of Prešov, with two eparchies in Slovakia and one eparchy in Canada. (Sphere of influence always extends beyond the official jurisdiction due to members of the church living outside of any official jurisdiction of the church. In the United States, for instance, which is a nation with an unusually rich diversity of Eastern Catholics, there appear to be quite a few Slovak Greek Catholics, represented in part by the Slovak Catholic Federation and similar organizations, but they are under the care of the Byzantine Catholic Church, which is Ruthenian.)

Online Sources and Resources:

Behind the Clouds Is the Sun Still Shining

Rainy Day
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Written at the old home in Portland

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains,and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains,and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Currently journeying through Never-ending Grading Land. It's not very scenic.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sublimity and the Fake-Awesome

MrsD has a nice review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which she talks a bit about something we discussed about The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, namely, the tendency of these big-spectacle fantasy movies (and other parts of our culture, as well, but especially obviously here) to try to wow its audiences with the fake-awesome.

In that previous post, she suggested that the fake-awesome was connected with our sense of sublimity:

The urge to adore is strong in humans, and if we aren't adoring something sublime, we will end up endowing all sorts of lesser things with fake-awesomeness so that we can exercise our faculty of admiration.

Thus the fake-awesome arises as a kind of corruption of our taste for the sublime. I think this account is very likely, and I think it explains some of the fakeness of the fake-awesome, and why it tends to take the forms it does. Just as human beings look for happiness in things that have only a superficial resemblance to real happiness, or for love in things that are only a bit like love, so we seek the sublime in things that seem to share one or two features of sublimity, if we don't look too closely. It's the common problem of trying to replicate extraordinary experiences without capturing what makes them extraordinary in the first place.

(1) The fake-awesome tends toward incoherence. The sublime, or genuinely awe-inspiring, is by its nature overwhelming. Precisely what makes it sublime is that it in some sense exceeds our capacity to take it in. Even the mere sensible sublime, like the apparently endless vista from a mountaintop, gets its sublime quality from the fact that we can tell, from the clues of sight itself, that what we are faced with exceeds our capacity to see.

The intelligible sublime is, as we say, mind-blowing. The sublime in its most proper sense is the infinitely intelligible to which our intellects themselves are disposed, but which we cannot, being merely rational creatures and not pure intellects, take in all at once. Mathematics is sublime because of its infinities. A narrative is genuinely epic when it somehow gives us this sense of the intelligible thing that goes on and on, that is more than we can assimilate: Homer, Virgil, Tolkien, the Ramayana, the Kalevala, the book of Job. This may or may not be in a form that is completely consistent -- even good Homer nods. And paradox and the sublime often go together, because of the overwhelming character of the latter. But the thing that is actually sublime or epic about it must in reality be consistent, because it must be intelligible -- it's just overwhelming in its intelligibility.

But how to present this in art is not a trivial problem to solve. In practice people often take shortcuts. But how do you fake the experience of having one's mind blown? You baffle the mind not by the luminous but by the obscure. (This is analogous to the Yoda method for faking a sage: Yoda mostly just says vapid and unhelpful things, but he sounds wise at first because he talks in such a way that we have to spend a little more time thinking through what he says. Similarly with the Big Word method of faking intelligence: instead of the character saying intelligent things, you can give a superficial illusion of intelligence by having them say stupid things using big words.) This can still be coherent, but the effort of maintaining consistency while making things more baffling at some point becomes prohibitive.

(2) The fake-awesome tends toward violence. The sublime has often been associated with the terrible. Indeed, the most basic experience of sublimity seems to be when we experience something capable of terrifying us but under conditions in which we can be exhilarated rather than fully terrified. At least, historically that is one of the most common kinds of experience associated with it. If you are going to fake experience of the sublime or truly awesome, one has to manufacture something analogous to this. The easiest way to do this is by pleasantly presented violence.

In Marvel's short series, Agent Carter, earlier this year, we trace part of the career of Peggy Carter after Captain America is frozen in ice. It's tough; it's a man's world, and the war is no longer giving women unusual opportunities by the sheer emergency imperative of "This needs to get done, no matter who does it." One of the ways they tried to convey this was by a classic radio program, depicting fictional adventures of Captain America and the love of his life -- I forget the name they give the character, but she's obviously a stand-in for Peggy Carter herself. But the woman in the radio program is constantly a damsel in distress needing to be rescued. It's a cute way to do things. But for someone like myself who listens to a lot of classic radio, it rang hollow. The Golden Age of Radio didn't actually tend to write women as damsels in distress, because there isn't much you can do with characters like that. People joke about Lois Lane always needing to be rescued by Superman, but the whole point of the character is that she is a woman doing a very dangerous job that would usually have been done by men. Because she is in this dangerous job, she sometimes is in danger. And she needs to be rescued exactly as much as Clark Kent, a man doing the same job, does -- it's just that we forget that Kent is always in situations in which he needs to be rescued because Kent is also Superman, who does the rescuing.

Actual Golden Age heroines, then, are a lot like Peggy Carter herself. Almost exactly alike, in fact. But there was one major obvious difference between a Peggy Carter and a Golden Age Lois Lane, or a similar radio heroine of the era: Peggy Carter is massively, and I mean massively, more violent. She beats people up left and right. And the reason is not hard to find. She is supposed to be an example of heroic strength, a strength that is awe-inspiring. And violence is a lazy way to suggest strength. Extreme violence is a lazy way to suggest great strength. It is also a lazy way to suggest competence -- in a superficial way, the violent person is in control. Extreme violence is a lazy way to suggest super-competence.

(3) The fake-awesome tends to involve big spectacle trumping all other features of a story. The sublime is something so great that in comparison to it we are small; but also so great that even our capacity to recognize its greatness is a mark of our own greatness. The pseudo-awesome cannot capture the latter part; but it can do a lot to imitate the vastness of the sublime and awe-inspiring. Thus the fake-awesome has a tendency to try for experiences that are bigger and bigger and bigger, even if it comes at the expense of valuable small things. In movies, of course, this tends toward super-extraordinary special effects, and it is why we can be living in a golden age of cinematic technique and yet get movie results that are so uneven. There is more skilled artistic technique involved in a superhero movie or in a movie like The Hobbit or Transformers than perhaps in any other kind of art -- but the gargantuan on its own is not the sublime, and it can often come across as simply ridiculous.

Contrast this with Tolkien, for instance. His full canvas is orders of magnitude greater than anything that can be conveyed on a screen but, a one-man Niggle painting a leaf at a time, he cannot provide at any particular point the sheer torrent of detail that an entire movie crew can easily provide. He has to sketch things out with hints and clues and carefully chosen phrases. In principle Hollywood can do anything Tolkien does on a much more massive scale than Tolkien can actually do it. But what we've seen in all the LOTR and Hobbit movies is that where Tolkien gives his close readers awe-inspiring, Peter Jackson just gives movie-watchers things that are big. (If it weren't for New Zealand scenery, in fact, it's unclear that Peter Jackson would be able to convey anything awe-inspiring at all.)

And there's no end in sight to this. As someone trying to find happiness in wealth alone will, because of the futility of it, just be driven to accumulate more and more wealth without finding any of it sufficient, the fake-awesome just gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it crashes under its own weight, because no amount of vastness alone can give you the kind of vastness that crushes you and exalts you at the same time and for the same reason.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Poem Draft


My thoughts are falling like the rain,
with thunder interlaced, and piercing light,
with murmurs of the waters as they run
through silent street and empty parking lot.

My shoulders ache; inside my heavy head
the pressure builds, then cracks across the height;
it rumbles through the air, this weight I've had
upon my soul, that I have come to hate.

And yet, from torrent-rains come health and green;
look out when storm is passed, and all has grown.

The Deathless Beauty of All Winged Hours

Above the Battlements of Heaven Rise
by George Santayana

Above the battlements of heaven rise
The glittering domes of the gods' golden dwelling,
Whence, like a constellation, passion-quelling,
The truth of all things feeds immortal eyes.
There all forgotten dreams of paradise
From the deep caves of memory upwelling,
All tender joys beyond our dim foretelling
Are ever bright beneath the flooded skies.
There we live o'er, amid angelic powers,
Our lives without remorse, as if not ours,
And others' lives with love, as if our own;
For we behold, from those eternal towers,
The deathless beauty of all wingèd hours,
And have our being in their truth alone.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sui Juris Churches XI: The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Antiochene

Primary Liturgical Language: Syriac and Malayalam.

Juridical Status: Major Archiepiscopal

Approximate Population: Between 400,000 and 500,000.

Brief History: The Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches are both significant St. Thomas Christian communities; the St. Thomas Christian communities were originally all united, and they all shared what we would call a Chaldean (East Syrian) liturgy due to their links with the Church of the East. So how is it that the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara churches are now distinct churches in different liturgical families, with one West Syrian and one East Syrian? The answer is the heavy-handedness of the Portuguese.

When the Portuguese began to dominate along the Malabar Coast of India, they became increasingly suspicious of the rites and customs of the Mar Thoma Nasrani communities, and began to take measures to impose the Latin rite. This did not go over well, and famously major leaders of the Mar Thoma community swore an oath to stop cooperating with the Jesuits -- not quite a breaking of communion in itself, but definitely a revolt. Disaster was avoided for the Latin church primarily because the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, concerned with missionary activity in India, immediately saw the danger, and sent missionaries out to try to placate and restore good relations with the Mar Thoma churches. This was a last desperate measure, but the missionaries sent out were actually very good, and they managed in short time to reconcile 84 out of the 116 churches; these reconciled communities are what would become the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The remaining 32 churches were not placated, however, and remained apart (although, again, there was still no official breaking of communion). In 1665, only a very short time after all of this had happened, a different kind of missionary arrived: Mar Gregorios of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. A number of the Mar Thoma congregations were impressed enough with him that they broke communion with Rome and joined communion with the Syriac Orthodox Church.

This group would remain Syriac Orthodox for quite some time. They kept a lot of their own customs, although there was also pressure to conform to the customs and liturgy of Antioch, which is why the Syro-Malankara will end up in a different liturgical family. This all happened quite slowly, and for the most part peacefully. In 1911, however, another crisis arose: the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Ignatius Abded Aloho II Sattuf, came to India. Ignatius, it must be understood was more than slightly controversial. He was a Syriac Orthodox bishop who became Syriac Catholic, apparently because he did not (due to Ottoman interference) become patriarch. He then switched back, apparently under the promise that he would be the next patriarch. This he did, and once he was Patriarchwent about traveling, first to London and then to India. He had spent some time in both places before. While in India, however, he began consecrating bishops on his own initiative. This was a considerable irritation to the bishops of India, and he and the Metropolitan of the Malankara in communion with Antioch, Vattasseril Geevarghese Mar Dionysius, got into a row over it. Ignatius excommunicated Mar Dionysius. Since Mar Dionysius was highly respected and widely considered a holy man (he is a saint on the current Malankara Orthodox calendar), this split the Malankara community into two groups: the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Tensions between the two groups became quite intense.

In 1930, a new twist arose when two bishops, Geevarghese Mar Ivanios and Jacob Mar Theophilos, who were Malankara Orthodox, joined with Rome. (They had been investigating the possibility of doing so for several years.) The reunion was a grand total of five people -- two bishops, a priest, a deacon, and a layman. But Mar Ivanios in particular was a very important bishop with very important connections, and the reunion movement that began to build around him is the beginning of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which was officially recognized in 1932 by Pius XI. Over the next few years, a few other bishops would join from the Malankara Jacobite branch of the Mar Thoma Nasrani. Mar Ivanios became Metropolitan Archbishop of the Malankara Catholics, and fulfilled the office magnificently; the church grew impressively during his tenure, and, what is more important, a foundation was laid that would attract Malankara from non-Catholic churches over the next several decades.

In 2005, the juridical status of the church was raised to Major Archiepiscopal; the Syro-Malankarans tend to refer to the head of their church as Catholicos, which is roughly the Church-of-the-East equivalent of a patriarch. From five people to a half a million is certainly significant growth, and its growth looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Notable Monuments: St. Mary's Syro-Malankara Cathedral in Trivandrum; St. Mary Queen of Peace Pro-Cathedral in Trivandrum.

Notable Saints: I know of no Syro-Malankaran saints on the general calendar, although there are a number of canonization processes open, most notably for Mar Ivanios himself.

Notable Religious Institutes: Easily the most important religious order in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church is the Order of the Imitation of Christ, also known as Bethany Ashram. It was founded by Mar Ivanios himself while still a bishop in the Malankara Orthodox Church; when he joined communion with Rome, the Bethany Ashram followed him. There is an associated women's order, Sisters of the Imitation of Christ or Bethany Madhom. In addition to other religious orders, there are also many lay societies.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: The Major Archeparchy of Trivandrum, the Archeparchy of Tiruvalla, and seven eparchies, all in India. In addition there is an exarchate for southern India and an exarchate for the United States. (Sphere of influence always extends beyond the official jurisdiction due to members of the church living outside of any official jurisdiction of the church. In the Syro-Malankara church this is often traceable through various lay societies, which have historically tended to be the organizing force of the church outside its official jurisdiction.)

Online Sources and Resources:

Music on My Mind

One Harp and a Flute, "Lady Mary Primrose".

I just finished teaching a bit of Lady Mary Shepherd's philosophical work for my Intro courses. Lady Mary Shepherd, of course, was born Lady Mary Primrose of Rosebery, and this famous tune, usually called "Lady Mary Primrose's Favorite", is named after her -- by Nathaniel Gow, the great collector of fiddle tunes, I think. This interesting arrangement of the fiddle tune, of course, has no fiddle in it at all; but it works very nicely.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Descartes and Princess Elisabeth on Seneca's De Vita Beata

Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia began her correspondence with Descartes very tentatively on May 6, 1643, but Descartes, always enthusiastic to find some notable person interested in his philosophical work, quickly set her mind at ease; they would go on to have a fruitful correspondence over the next several years, discussing the relation of mind and body (the first topic Elisabeth brought up), mathematics, medicine, politics, and the difficulties of doing philosophy on a busy schedule. Among all these topics, one of the interesting discussions was a brief look at Seneca's De vita beata. (It is important to note that the chronological order of the letters can be somewhat misleading, despite its convenience, because there are several instances where it seems clear that their letters are passing each other en route, so that they are not responding to the other person's most recent letter, which they have not yet received.)

The discussion begins well into their correspondence, with the letter from Descartes to Elisabeth for July 21, 1645. Descartes notes that he wants nothing more than to see the Princess happy, and so concludes that the subject that seems worth discussing is "how philosophy teaches us to acquire this sovereign felicity which vulgar minds vainly expect from fortune, but which we can obtain only from ourselves" (252 / 96). He suggests that looking at what the ancients have said on the subject is the best way of discussing the question, so he recommends starting with Seneca's De vita beata, if she does not prefer doing another text. He explicitly asks for her own comments on the book, for his how instruction.

In the very next letter, however, that of Descartes to Elisabeth for August 4, he already regrets his choice. He had chosen it, he says immediately, due to the reputation of the book, but having read it, he has concluded that Seneca's approach is not exact enough to make it worth doing. He sees this, however, as an opportunity for explaining how he thinks Seneca should have approached the subject.

He starts with the question of what is meant by vivere beate, and faces a problem with translating it into French (the same problem we have translating it into English): it is natural to translate it as "to live happily (heureusement)" but this runs the danger of suggesting that it is about fortune (l'heur) rather than about what is really meant (la béatitude). To clear this up he gives his own preferred account of that in which la béatitude consists: "a perfect contentment of the mind and an internal satisfaction that those who are the most favored by fortune ordinarily do not have and that the sages acquire without fortune's favor" (264 / 97).

The next question that needs to be considered is what causes this contentment and satisfaction. Descartes identifies two things: first, some causes depend on us (like virtue or wisdom) and some don't (like honors and riches). But the fact that the former category even exists means that our happiness does not have to depend on fortune. Thus, he concludes, three things seem to allow us a reasonable guarantee of happiness:

(1) Trying to make use of one's mind as well as one can.
(2) Having a firm resolution to do what reason advises; this firmness of resolution is virtue.
(3) Accustoming oneself not to desire the causes of happiness that are outside of one's power, but to focus on those things that are within one's power.

Descartes notes explicitly that these three rules are related to the "provisional code of morals consisting of three or four maxims" that he had given in Part III of the Discourse on Method. This suggests that the provisional code might perhaps be more important than the immediate context of the Discourse makes clear. Descartes's identification of virtue with firmness of resolution in the pursuit of rational life is also interesting, and it is clear from how he describes it that he recognizes that this account of virtue is somewhat unusual.

Only desires involving impatience and sadness are inconsistent with b´atitude; likewise, reason doesn't have to be always right for us to have it. So the only thing we need in order to have genuine happiness is virtue, which is firmness in acting according to right reason. But this does require that our intellect take some trouble to make clear what virtue is.

This, then, is what Seneca should have done: laid out the basic truths that make it possible to recognize virtue and follow it.

Elisabeth more or less agrees in her letter to Descartes of August 16. As she notes, she found the book more useful for providing topics for reflection than for understanding what the happy life is. The problem is that Seneca has no method, and so instead of actually describing béatitude, he just defends the possibility of achieving it even if you are wealthy. She encourages Descartes to continue his analysis of Seneca, not because she finds it surprising, but because he is expressing naturally what seems to her to be right, thus allowing her to have a better understanding of how everything fits together.

She doubts, however, that it is possible to have happiness without any reliance at all on things out of our power. Some diseases interfere with reason, for instance, and so eliminate that satisfaction; others make it difficult to follow the maxims we need to follow in order to achieve happiness. When Epicurus tried not to show pain when he was dying because of kidney stones, he was able to do so because he was a philosopher; a prince or courtier would not be in a situation that would make it possible.

Descartes, never averse to giving his own philosophical views, accedes to Elisabeth's request in his 18 August letter to her. Having discussed what Seneca should have done, he will not critique what Seneca actually did. There are three basic things that he attempts:

(1) He tries to give definitions of sovereign good.
(2) He tries to argue against the Epicureans.
(3) He responds to those who claim philosophers do not practice what they preach.

With regard to the first, Seneca insists on the importance of reason over custom; Descartes agrees entirely, although he thinks Seneca's formulations are often not very exact. He is unimpressed with the definitions Seneca gives, however. In particular, he thinks it is unclear what Seneca means by 'nature' when he says that we should live in accord with nature and with our own nature. He seems to mean the order established by God. But, Descartes says, this seems to leave everything unexplained. Further, since Seneca gives several definitions, it suggests that he himself might not have a clear idea of what he is trying to say.

With regard to the second, Descartes begins by setting forth his own view. First, he insists that sovereign good, béatitude, and the goal to which actions ought to tend are all distinct. Béatitude presupposes sovereign good, but is the actual possession of it; and the goal to which our actions should tend could be either, since sovereign good is what we should seek and béatitude is what attracts us to sovereign good.

He then suggests that there is an equivocation in criticisms of Epicurus. Critics of Epicurus claim that by 'pleasure' he means only sensible pleasure; in reality it is clear from what Seneca and others say that he actually held that it was any kind of contentment of mind. When we get this cleared away, we have three ancient views of sovereign good: Aristotle takes it to be all perfections of body and mind; Zeno takes it to be virtue; and Epicurus takes it to be pleasure. All of these are true if understood a certain way. Aristotle is essentially right, but Zeno and Epicurus are more immediately relevant here. Zeno is entirely right if we think of what a person can have on his or her own power. But this also makes it look so severe that only people of a particular temperament could go along with it. Epicurus, on the other hand, is also right, since even virtue wouldn't make us happy if we had no pleasure in virtue. But the problem is that this way of talking about sovereign good seems to obscure the importance of virtue.

Thus Descartes prefers his own account of béatitude as contentment in general; even if there are bodily causes of contentment, the only solid path would be virtue, since it is in our power.

Elisabeth in a further letter of August is pleased with Descartes's exposition and reiterates again that the obscurity of ancient authors comes from their lack of method. Seneca seems to treat of the Epicurean philosophy "more as a satirist than as a philosopher" (280 / 106). She is especially pleased at his account of how all the major ancient positions can be right, since it serves as an answer to a possible skeptical objection -- namely, that because they disagree the sovereign good must be difficult to find. She encourages him to continue.

In his letter of September 1, Descartes continues his discussion by addressing Elisabeth's August 16th worry about how much happiness actually is in our power. He agrees that there are diseases that take away the power of reasoning and therefore the possibility of rational satisfaction, and he concludes that what he had applied to everyone should actually apply only to those who have free use of reason and know how to reach happiness. Everyone wants to be happy, but people don't always know how, and our bodies may interfere with our ability to think through what we are doing. He compares this to sleep: you can be as rational as you please, and still have irrational bad dreams when sleeping. Nonetheless, if one has any free use of one's mind, one can train one's mind to return to things that bring contentment. And other indispositions, while they may make things more difficult, are nonetheless things we can overcome.

We also, however, need to know something about the causes of contentment, which is the same kind of knowledge required for virtue: "For all the actions of the mind which bring us some perfection are virtuous, and all our contentment consists only in our inner testimony of having some perfection" (283-284 / 107). All exercise of virtue, therefore, brings some pleasure. But these pleasures are not all the same. Pleasures of the mind insofar as it is united to the body, for instance, are confused and so we can misjudge how great the pleasure will be, or how great the perfection associated with it might be. This shows even more clearly the need for reason to evaluate all our pleasures. What we will find is that the pleasures of the body are often lesser, and associated with lesser perfections, and not as lasting; and thus in this sense we can say that what really matters are pleasures of the mind itself, which can be as stable as reason. But, he hastens to add, we should not despise the pleasures of the body; the point is to subject them to reason, not eliminate them entirely.

Elisabeth's next letter, of September 13, will turn discussion more closely to the role of the passions in all of this, and Descartes in his letter of September 15 will agree with Elisabeth's diagnosis of Seneca in the letter in which she says he writes more like a satirist than a philosopher, and they will therefore go on to discuss Descartes's own ideas much more closely. Thus the discussion of the sovereign good will continue; but, as this is more or less all they say about Seneca's De vita beata, this is where we will leave off.

Quotations are from Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes, Lisa Shapiro, ed. & tr. The University of Chicago Press (Chicago: 2007).

References are: (Adam-Tannery page number for Descartes's works / page number in Shapiro's translation).

Artists of Our Own Fairness

See his kindness! Though he could have made us fair by force, without toil,
he has toiled in every way that we might become fair by our own choice,
ourselves the artists of our own fairness
using the colors our own freedom had gathered.

St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on the Fath, no. 31, quoted in Chorbishop Seely Joseph Beggiani, Early Syriac Theology, with Special Reference to the Maronite Tradition, CUA Press (Washington, DC: 2014) p. 39.

An interesting convergence with the recent passage by Rosmini I excerpted here (which, however, seems to be independent).

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Fortnightly Book, May 10

The fortnightly book is Marshall Terry's Tom Northway. I know practically nothing about the book, although it is the first work in a 'saga' having to do with American life. The blurb inside the dust jacket starts out:

An old farmer, celebrating his ninetieth birthday in the simple ritual of the daily chores, reflects on his life, its meaning, and his future in this wonderfully warm and affirmative novel.

I am wary of books called 'warm and affirmative' (I am perversely tempted to say that I prefer cold and negative, but the real problem is that I don't trust what other people call 'warm and affirmative'), so this is not an especially promising start for me, but the book seems to have been moderately well regarded and the rest of the blurb actually does make the title character sound attractive (hard-working farmer with a good, if imperfect family, and a love of animals), so we will see.

Marshall Terry himself is a Dallas author, which is ultimately a reason why he ends up in the list. Not all, but a lot of Fortnightly Books come from my grandparents' library, which I inherited. Most of them were from my grandfather, who was a voracious reader all his life, but I have a number of books that are certainly from my grandmother. This book is certainly from my grandmother's side because the name on the ex-libris (Leftwich) clearly links it to her mother's family. (If I'm not mixing up the family tree, it belonged to her aunt, but I might be wrong about that -- it's not a side of the family I know all that much about, beyond the fact that it is an old Virginia family deriving from an old Cheshire family.) My great-grandparents on that side lived in Dallas -- and the booklabel clearly gives a Dallas address -- so that's the link. The book received a number of awards and so it would be quite reasonable for a Dallas resident to be aware of, and have a copy of, a book by a Dallas author.

It's fitting, I think, that a tale about American family comes to me through my genealogy.

Jack London, The Sea-Wolf


Opening Passage:

I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit. He kept a summer cottage in Mill Valley, under the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, and never occupied it except when he loafed through the winter months and read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain. When summer came on, he elected to sweat out a hot and dusty existence in the city and to toil incessantly. Had it not been my custom to run up to see him every Saturday afternoon and to stop over till Monday morning, this particular January Monday morning would not have found me afloat on San Francisco Bay.

Summary: Humphrey Van Weyden is a literary critic from a wealthy background. He has never done a hard day's work in his life, his nickname even among his peers in school was "Sissy", and his world is about to come crashing down when events land him aboard a sealing schooner, the Ghost, captained by a brilliant amoral brute of a man, Wolf Larsen. He is kidnapped and set to menial work among brutish men, entirely at Wolf Larsen's whim.

The obvious advantage of a ship for a story is that it is a world in miniature, and London takes full advantage of this. The men aboard the Ghost are quite diverse, but it is a world governed on materialist principles, in which victory goes to the stronger, and Larsen is top of the heap by sheer force of intelligence and brute strength. In both practice and discussion, his materialism and Van Weyden's idealism clash -- and the latter is what gives, because the former is what has all the physical strength and amoral ruthlessness.

But this is not the whole story. The reason that Van Weyden's idealism must give way is that Larsen's contempt for Van Weyden's idealism is to some extent justified: Van Weyden, having been shielded from harsh reality all his life, treats men as if they were merely pure spirits, not animals of flesh and blood. But animals of flesh and blood we certainly are, and any view on which this is not recognized is harmful to us, leaving us stunted, weak, incapable of fulfilling our true potential.

Ambrose Bierce famously remarked that the characterization of Wolf Larsen was very great, which is certainly true. He also remarked that the love story in the novel was absurd, and I think it's the case that people have tended to regard it as a secondary matter. This is very unfortunate. For The Sea-Wolf is not a novel about how impressive Wolf Larsen is; it is a novel about what is wrong with a Wolf Larsen, no matter how impressive he is. It is the interaction between Humphrey Van Weyden and Maud Brewster that makes it so.

We talk about a Nietzsche-like 'superman', but in real life where do we find men actually coming closest to having something of that greatness -- the overflowing of life into grand projects, the affirmation of one's own excellence and creation of one's own values, the willingness to fight, not out of resentment, but out of the glory of the challenge, or whatever else we may attribute to such an Übermensch? Where, in short, do we most typically find men at their best as animals and as minds?

London's answer is clear enough: it is in a man rising to a challenge because of a woman. This is the point of life where all the material side of life, the demand of blood and flesh, rushes together with all the ideal side of life, the meeting of minds and the protection of others. A Humphrey Van Weyden or a Maud Brewster, alone and individually and with nothing but their ideals, are scarcely more than ephemeral spirits, wisps and ghosts who only get by because others do their work for them. That's what their idealism on its own amounts to: the hard physical work and the dirt on the hands they leave to others. But put them together, and they are more than Wolf Larsen can be. (Admittedly they have some luck -- but without each other not all the luck in the world would have sufficed.) A man for a woman, a woman for a man: the spirit expressing itself in the flesh and the flesh rising up to the spirit. It is here that human potential at its greatest is found. Wolf Larsen's animal strength, animal intelligence, animal magnetism -- they are only half of human excellence.

And they are the half of human excellence that on their own can only end in death and despair. Van Weyden and Brewster luck out with Wolf's illness, but this is just a matter of timing. There was never any other end for Wolf, but to die helpless in the face of something he cannot fight. That is the end of every animal, even if that animal is human; Wolf's materialist viewpoint, in which we are all just part of nature red in tooth and claw, can recognize nothing that goes beyond the final tooth and claw that gets you. It's very ironic that he captains a ship called the Ghost; there is nothing immaterial in his view of the world. And thus no ideals, no higher glory, no excellence that takes one beyond fighting to the top of the heap until something else drags you down again. Might makes right, on its own, can only end with universal defeat. London can see, and describe, its plentiful attractions; but there is no other fate in store for those who go down that road than to be someday crushed.

It is the Van Weydens and Brewsters, not as 'pure spirits', as airy minds divorced from the real world, but instead together as both spirit and flesh, who will inherit the earth. It is they who still have something to drive them on, no matter how bad the world gets. Even if they die, they will not die alone and defeated, because between them they build the conditions for a higher victory. What is wrong with Nietzsche's Overman (at least as he would have been widely conceived in London's day)? He's a bachelor conceived by a bachelor, and doomed always to be a bachelor. A real superman would have a willing mate fit to join with him in life itself.

What makes the work is the vividness with which London understands both sides. London could always admire a Wolf Larsen; he was an enthusiastic reader of Nietzsche; he had all of Wolf Larsen's literary tastes. It is not an accident that his writing of the work corresponded with his period of Long Sickness, as he called it (using a phrase from Nietzsche), in which he was nearly crushed by nihilistic despair -- and also not an accident that it corresponds with his flight from the city and into the hard work of ranching -- and also not an accident that it corresponds with the early part of his affair with Charmian Kittredge, whom he would marry not long after the book was published. And it is also not an accident that his pet name for Kittredge, Mate Woman, is echoed in the tale by Van Weyden. The novel is not about Jack London. But he knew all sides of the story very well.

Favorite Passage:

Death Larsen!” I involuntarily cried. “Is he like you?”

“Hardly. He is a lump of an animal without any head. He has all my—my--”

“Brutishness,” I suggested.

“Yes,--thank you for the word,—all my brutishness, but he can scarcely read or write.”

“And he has never philosophized on life,” I added.

“No,” Wolf Larsen answered, with an indescribable air of sadness. “And he is all the happier for leaving life alone. He is too busy living it to think about it. My mistake was in ever opening the books.”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.