Saturday, August 01, 2015

Music on My Mind

Regina Spektor, "How"

Rosmini for August I

[My time this August is highly disjointed, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to do a quotation series to regularize things a bit. There was some interest in some of the excerpts from Bl. Antonio Rosmini a while back, and as it happens I came across A Spiritual Calendar, which was a thought-of-the-day book pulled together by Aloysius Lanzoni and translated from Italian into English and slightly modified by George Elson. It was published in 1911. So I'll post the bit from Rosmini for each day of August. I have slightly changed the formatting of the references.]

Shall I accuse the present generation of not reading the Scriptures? I would rather accuse them of not doing so devoutly. They read them coldly as they would read an ordinary book, and as if to judge rather than to be judged by them. Read them constantly, and in so doing, follow that advice given in that golden book, the Imitation of Christ. (Book I. chap. v.) You can have no better rule.
Christian Education Book I. chap. 2. No. 4. [SC]

The relevant passage from The Imitation of Christ can be found here.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Different Respects

Joel Feinberg in an influential article ["Some Conjectures about the Concept of Respect," Journal of Social Philosophy 4 (1973) pp. 1-3] suggested that we can divide forms of respect into three different kinds:

(1) Respekt: This is the sense of 'respect' in which one respects a rattlesnake. Its object is the dangerous, and it is the opposite of negligent or contemptuous disregard.

(2) Observantia: This is deference to others; its object is someone who has a claim on us. Feinberg suggests (not entirely plausibly, in my view) that this is a sort of generalization of (1).

(3) Reverentia: This is awe and its object is the sublime or sacred; it is the sort of thing, for instance, that Kant means when he says that we should have Achtung, respect, for the moral law.

A key difference, it seems to me, between respekt and observantia is that observantia is intrinsically concerned with communication. You cannot actually defer to others except insofar as there is some kind of communication between you and them. This is one reason to think it doubtful that social deference can genuinely be a direct of wary regard -- observantia or deference already presupposes recognized social relations and communications, whereas respekt does not.

An interesting question is whether reverentia is also distinguished from respekt in this way. Sublimity, it seems, need not belong to something with which you can be in a social interaction; one thinks, for instance, of the sublimity of a thunderstorm or of the 'starry sky above'. (This is, it should be noted, something that has been denied; Thomas Reid, for instance, holds that sublimity does, in fact, involve, at least indirectly, a mind other than one's own.) But it is also the case that in at least some of these cases, like the thunderstorm, one could argue that this is a case of the sublime calling forth respekt, not reverentia. Indeed, if you look at many early influential accounts of the sublime, the reaction to it is almost entirely in terms of dread and fear, like you would expect for respekt. Thus respekt and reverentia both seem to be something one can have for the sublime, which distinguishes them from observantia: the sublime is not something to which one merely defers. This makes it tempting to suggest, for symmetry, that reverentia and observantia share, against respekt, this communication aspect. To be sure, the standard examples from Kant, the starry heavens and the moral law, don't immediately suggest this to us, but this is complicated by the fact that in Kant's account our ability to recognize these as sublime is at least linked with our capacity to think of these things in personal terms (i.e., in terms of designer and Lawgiver, respectively), even if the link is not straightforward; and historically they both have, in fact, been thought of in such terms. And it's certainly undeniably that awe can involve this communication.

Two Poem Drafts


Reason traces every cause,
through laws,
and then the cause of laws,
to God, and -- ah!
Such sublimity!
By reason's endless thread we touch --
though barely touch --
and find our God,
shining like a radiant star,
at least infinitely far.

Faith traces every trace,
depicting grace,
an icon of the cause of grace,
our God, and -- ah!
Such intimacy!
By faith, as by an inner light,
a candle small --
but burning bright --
our hearts expand
and find our God,
shining more than solar star,
and only infinitely far.


I would I were a mockingbird,
with all the notes the world has heard,
a language rich, too rich for word,
and only ever sung;

the day would pass in music sweet,
cicadas droning out the beat,
a pleasure perfect and complete,
but only ever sung.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Facts to Be Accounted For

A sense of music or a taste for travel are facts to be accounted for: it is perfectly true that many persons appear to exist in comfort without them; but it is another question as to how far the world without them could exist at all.

Robert Hugh Benson, Papers of a Pariah, p. 54.

Thursday Vice: Pusillanimity

Magnanimity, or great-souledness, plays an important role in Aristotle's list of virtues; he discusses it in Nicomachean Ethics IV. It is a virtue concerned with honor and dishonor. Since a virtue is partly to be understood by determining how it is a mean between extremes, he also briefly discusses the opposing vices. On the excessive side is vanity, the person who honors himself too much; and on the deficient side is pusillanimity, small-souledness. The pusillanimous man

being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves, and [has] something bad about him from the fact that he does not think himself worthy of good things, and seems also not to know himself; else he would have desired the things he was worthy of, since these were good.

Aristotle sees magnanimity as a sort of justice to oneself, so the pusillanimous is likewise a sort of failing to do justice to oneself. When Cicero discusses magnanimity in De Officiis, he shifts the account so that magnanimity is associated primarily with fortitude rather than justice. The magnanimous man is not so much honoring himself as he is making himself honorable. He does this, first, by a contempt for outward incidentals, in which he keeps his mind on the right and rises above the passions; and second, by seeking out difficult challenges that contribute to the public good. The mark of the small-minded or pusillanimous man, on the other hand, is the kind of passion that leads one to evade this kind of greatness-seeking -- the most obviously problematic of these being a love of wealth, but fear, lust for fame, sensuality, and the like may be motivators of the small-souled, as well.

Aquinas's account of magnanimity blends Aristotle and Cicero, so it is unsurprising that his account of the vice of pusillanimity (ST 2-2.133) shows the effect of this. Like Aristotle, Aquinas takes magnanimity to concern honor for one's own virtue, but, like Cicero, he takes this to be associated with fortitude, because our regard for our own virtue is more concerned with what we will do than it is with what we have done. We have a natural inclination to accomplish things suitable to our capabilities; this inclination is part of who we are as rational beings in the first place, which means that failing to fulfill it is to do something morally wrong. Magnanimity is the virtue concerned with this kind of accomplishment; the two vices are presumption, in which we strive to do more than our capability can reasonably be considered to allow, and pusillanimity, in which we refuse to achieve what is appropriate to our basic capabilities. He gives as an example the parable of the talents, in which the fearful servant buries the talent he has received instead of daring to trade it so that it will multiply.

Pusillanimity, therefore, is the habitual disposition of burying one's talents, in which we fail to strive for a greatness commensurate with our gifts, whether those be gifts of nature, or gifts of education, or gifts of fortune. It is not a kind of humility, although it might superficially look like it; it is often even motivated by pride, because one way in which we can be proud is by clinging to our own opinions simply because they are ours, and not letting ourselves be corrected. This can happen regardless of what our opinions are, and so we can, out of pride, refuse to be corrected in our false opinion of our own incompetence. It is a truly remarkable feature of human capacity for obstinate self-importance that we can value ourselves too little by valuing our own opinions too much. Pusillanimity can also arise in other ways, however; for instance, we can shrink from greatness due to laziness in considering our capabilities, or because we have in some way become disheartened by other passions.

In the post-medieval era, Spinoza is notable for considering, at least to some extent, the moral problems of pusillanimity, in scattered discussions throughout the Ethics; a good example is in Part IV, Proposition XXIX, in which he characterizes it as thinking too little of one's self due to pain. It is a sort of humility -- which he regards not as a virtue but as a passion to be overcome -- taken to extremes. But he also regards it as rare; in fact, he thinks that the people who usually come across as so self-denigrating are in reality dissimulating, and that this elaborate self-denigration is often a cover for a pettily envious and ambitious mind.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Its Time Is the For-Ever

The Communion of Saints
by George Boole

When the light of day declineth,
And the fields in shadow lie,
And the dewy Hesper shineth
Fairest in the western sky,
Visions in the twilight rise,
Night unseals the spirit's eyes.

Then the dead, in thought arriving,
From the far-off regions bright,
Seem to aid our earnest striving
For the holy and the right;
Even they who sailed before
O'er this ocean to that shore.

Yes, the dead of all the nations
Who, in patient hope and sure,
Laboured in their generations
For the Lovely and the Pure;
Heavenly sympathizing yield
To their followers in the field.

Seeker after Truth's deep fountain,
Delver in the soul's deep mine,
Toiler up the rugged mountain
To the upper Light Divine,
Think, beyond the stars there be
Who have toiled and wrought like thee.

Good is even as its Giver,
As the Universal light,
And its time is the For-Ever,
And its space the Infinite;
As a linkèd chain of gold
All the world it shall enfold.

Also found in Mary Everest Boole's Symbolical Methods of Study. A very Siris-relevant poem, too, since Siris is named after the "linkèd chain of gold".

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

'The Bandwagon of My Own Uncertainty'

The poet Taylor Mali questions the habitual question-tone in his poem, "Totally like whatever, you know?":

The Mencius, Book III

Book III.A (Teng Wen Gong I)

The focus of Book III is on affairs along the border between Qi and Chu, particularly the realm of Teng, and understanding something about this little kingdom is valuable for understanding the philosophical arguments of this section of the Mengzi. The ruler of Teng who is of importance is Duke Wen; we met him in Book I (I.B.13-15), where he already gives some of the background.

Teng was immediately to the east and north of Song, which is why it's easy for Duke Wen (before he has ascended to become Duke Wen) to get advice from Master Meng residing in Song. It was also just south of Lu, of which it was often a vassal, and (if I am not mistaken amidst all the many border changes in this period) the also-tiny state of Zou, which was also often a vassal state of Lu and was where Mencius himself was born. It was located where the current city of Tengzhou, once its capital, is located; in fact, the entire ancient kingdom would easily fit within the jurisdiction of the modern city. Duke Wen inherited what is perhaps the single most unfortunate situation in the period: a tiny kingdom with a tiny population surrounded on almost all sides by more powerful neighbors, and, in particular, right at the border of political and military influence between two especially aggressive opposing kingdoms, Qi and Chu. In Book I.B, Duke Wen asks Mencius whether he should throw his lot in with Qi or Chu, and Mencius concedes the near-impossibility of finding an adequate answer to that particular question. Teng, then, provides some of the hardest questions of the day for political philosophy and statesmanship. Another significant fact about Teng is that it was the birthplace of the philosopher Mozi; it is thus unsurprising that we find a bit of interaction between Mencius and Mohist philosophers here.

III.A opens with a succession of episodes with regard to Duke Wen: his meeting with Mencius prior to ascending the throne, his consultation with Mencius on his father's funeral arrangement and the success he achieved in following Mencius's advice, and then a discussion of how a king should handle the economics of his kingdom. To be constant, the people need means of support, so working to make sure that they have it is a major and immediate priority. One of the policies that Master Meng discusses is the ching-field system. This is sometimes translated as 'well-field', because ching means 'well', but the system has nothing to do with wells. The reason it is called the ching-field system is due not to the meaning of the word ching, but to the fact that the Chinese character for it is two strokes crossed by two strokes -- in other words, it looks very similar to our hash, #. The ching-field system, therefore, divides an area into nine fields. The center field will belong to the state, the eight outer fields to various families; the center field will be cared for by the eight families together. This system provides a continual stream of revenue for the state, but much more importantly, it encourages cooperation among the people. In order to fulfill their responsibilities and keep their fields, people need to know their neighbors and find ways to work with them: "If those who own land within each ching befriend one another both at home and abroad, help each other to keep watch, and succour each other in illness, they will live in love and harmony" (III.A.3).

This part ends with Mencius's interaction with Mohists and Mohist-inspired philosophical movements in the region. Xu Xing preaches a philosophy of simplicity; according to tradition, he was the student of a student of Mozi, so he seems to be taking Master Moh's emphasis on simplicity to an extreme. The Mengzi says that he proclaimed the teachings of Shen Nong, the legendary creator of agriculture, so it's rural simplicity in particular that he advocates. A couple of Confucians, Chen Xiang and his brother Xin, convert to his teachings, and the former criticizes the economic policies of Duke Wen, and thus implicitly criticizes Mencius himself, whom we have just encountered giving Duke Wen economic advice. According to Xu Xing, the prince should farm along with the people and support himself by that means instead of filling up granaries by collecting from the people. You will note that this is not consistent with the ching-field system. Mencius points out that Xu Xing does not make everything himself; he must trade for most of it. And ruling an Empire is not an exception to this need for division of labor. He gives the example of the ancient hero-kings of China, who were involved in incessant projects for the good of their people. In addition, he sharply criticizes Chen Xiang himself for deviating from his Confucian teacher in order to follow "the southern barbarian with the twittering tongue, who condemns the way of the Former Kings" (III.A.4). Chen Xiang protests that the way of Xu Xing will restore honesty to the economic system by making everything equal, but Master Meng insists that it is this very fact that shows the intrinsic tendency of the policy to cultivate dishonest practices:

That things are unequal is part of their nature. Some are worth twice or five times, ten or a hundred times, even a thousand and ten thousand times, more than others. If you reduce them to the same level, it will only bring confusion to the Empire. If a roughly finished shoe sells at the same price as a finely finished one, who would make the latter? If we follow the way of Hsü Tzu, we will be showing one another teh way to being dishonest. How can one govern a state in this way?

In III.A.5, Mencius crosses arguments with the Mohist Yi Zhi over funeral practices for one's parents. The Mohists are big on simplicity and frugality, but Yi Zhi himself departed from this in giving his parents a lavish funeral. The rest of the passage is relatively obscure, and the exact interpretation somewhat disputed. Yi Zhi responds by appealing to the Confucian principle that the ancient kings did well because they cared for people as if they were caring for a newborn baby, and argues that it suggests not the Confucian doctrine of gradations of love but the Mohist doctrine of universal love. This is an argument of some potential bite, since, as we saw in Book II, Mencius's own argument for the rootedness of virtue in human nature was that we all will have compassion for a baby in danger.

It's unclear how it responds to the point about the funeral, but here is a rough possibility (partly suggested by Kwong-loi Shun's "Mencius' Criticism of Mohism: An Analysis of "Meng Tzu" 3A: 5", Philosophy East and West, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 203-214, although I am simplifying the idea somewhat and glossing over nuances): Yi Zhi is arguing that lavish funerals are in fact (contrary to what one would expect from Mozi himself) consistent with the Mohist principle of universal love, which itself is the root of the Mohist critique of lavish funerals. In particular, the problem Mohists have with lavish funerals when they criticize them is not merely that they are lavish but that they are so in a way harmful to the good of society, because they violate the Mohist principle of universal love. If one approaches the funerals the right way, as a stepping-stone to acting with universal love, there is no real inconsistency. The Confucians, on this view, are actually guilty of the inconsistency, because they recognize that we would all protect a baby, and that the hero-kings were righteous because they protected the people as one would protect a baby, and they take the hero-kings to be exemplars for behavior, but they wish to combine all of these things with a principle of gradations in love, when they really show the importance of equality in love. Mencius replies in turn that while we would all protect a baby, this does not mean that we love all children equally. The one impulse of compassion will apply to all babies, but it will naturally apply even more to family members and so forth. There is no need for the balancing act of guiding our natural expression of affection for our parents according to Mohist universal principles that do not derive from this affection, as suggested by Yi Zhi; the whole of one's treatment of people flows from one properly cultivated source. Why have a lavish funeral for one's parents in particular? Because our compassion does have special regard for our parents, as can be seen if we reflect on what happens if sons see their parents' corpses rotting in the sun.

Book III.B (Teng Wen Gong II)

At the beginning of III.B, Mencius reiterates against several suggestions by various figures, probably his students, that the proper motive for action, including Mencius's own teaching, is not profit; one must act according to principle, and not be deflected from it by purported benefits. He also corrects the mistake (III.B.4) of thinking that the moral person can never benefit for his work, because benefits should be apportioned to the actual achieving of good, not according to whether people were aiming to be benefited. We continue with advice for the situations in between Qi and Chu, particularly for the kingdom of Song.

III.B.9, however, is particularly interesting. Gong Du notes that other schools regard Master Meng as particularly disputatious, and asks why. Mencius replies by giving an account of his entire approach. He does not argue because he wants to do so, but because he is forced to do so by the situation. He does not live in a time of sage-kings and heroes, but in a period of degeneration, in which all sorts of aberrant and dangerous philosophical movements are springing up:

The teachings current in the Empire are those of either the school of Yang or the school of Mo. Yang advocates everyone for himself which amounts to a denial of one's prince; Mo advocates love without discrimination, which amounts to a denial of one's father. To ignore one's father on the one hand, and one's prince on the other, is to be no different from the beasts.

We know very little about Yang, beyond a story, common to several sources, that he said he would refuse the throne of the Empire if it required harming even a hair on his head, and so cannot measure how accurate Mencius's assessment is. But it seems clear enough from what Mencius does say that, from his perspective, Yang and Mo are in one sense opposites -- Yang holds that one must focus on one's self and Mo holds that one must regard everyone equally -- but they both share the notion that our moral life is to be governed by some kind of benefit or profit. Against this Mencius is advocating the teaching of Confucius, which can form a middle way because it does not build on the notion of profit or benefit, but on the more fundamental principles of human nature. This teaching is not a mere abstract or academic pursuit; it shows the way to be moral and human, and a society in which this is not cultivated is a society in which men will turn on each other like beasts, a state, in other words, of some form of civil war. This is the reason for Master Meng's emphasis on argument:

The Duke of Chou wanted to punish those who ignored father and prince. I, too, wish to follow in the footsteps of the three sages in rectifying the hearts of men, laying heresies to rest, opposing extreme action, and banishing excessive views. I am not fond of disputation. I have no alternative. Whoever can, with words, combat Yang and Mo is a true disciple of the sages.

The last section, III.B.10, is perhaps an illustration of this, because he criticizes rather sharply a man he otherwise respects, because of the extremeness of his views and actions.

to be continued

Monday, July 27, 2015

Finite of Sense and Infinite of Thought

To the Number Three
by George Boole

When the great Maker, on Creation bent,
Thee from thy brethren chose, and framed by thee
The world to sense revealed, yet left it free
To those whose intellectual gaze intent
Behind the veil phenomenal is sent
Space diverse, systems manifold to see
Revealed by thought alone; was it that we
In whose mysterious spirits thus are blent
Finite of sense and Infinite of thought,
Should feel how vast, how little is our store;
As yon excelling arch with orbs deep-fraught
To the light wave that dies along the shore;
That from our weakness and our strength may rise
One worship unto Him the Only Wise.

This poem by Boole was published in Mary Everest Boole's Symbolical Methods of Study (1884), which also has several others. This is an interesting and difficult poem to interpret; Boole was a Unitarian (he is said to have considered converting to Judaism at one point), and it is possible that there is an implicit criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity here -- notice that we are "finite of sense and infinite of thought", and thus capable of rising above the world of sense, but the number three is specifically said to be the frame on the basis of which the "world to sense revealed" is framed. But it's also the case that Boole was not particularly dogmatic, so it's not clear that this is part of the intention. In any case, the poem is explicitly about higher-dimensional mathematics: three dimensions frame the world of sense, but the human mind is capable of thinking of more. Very similar themes and ideas are found later, long after Boole's death, in Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland (1884) and in the work of Charles Hinton (who married Boole's daughter).

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Virtues of Taste

Tina Baceski in a relatively recent article in Hume Studies has a nice summary of the Humean account of aesthetic judgment:

To summarize: An art critic possesses delicate sentiment, a quick and accurate perception of beauty. Delicacy comes through being practiced in the sense of having repeatedly experienced a certain kind of art as well as having repeatedly experienced the particular artwork judged. Experience facilitates the comparison of different works so that the critic acquires knowledge of the potential kind and range of qualities of those works. Moreover, a critic is free of prejudice that interferes with his adopting the right point of view. Finally, a critic has good sense: he employs his reason to overcome his prejudices, to make fine-grained distinctions among aesthetic properties, and to discern "complicated relations." This helps to ensure that his perception is discriminating and that his responses to art are appropriate. Together, these characteristics--the virtues of taste--distinguish accomplished art critics from persons of ordinary aesthetic sensibilities.
[Tina Baceski, "Hume on Art Critics, Wise Men, and the Virtues of Taste", Hume Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2013) p. 245.]

I've summarized Hume's account of good taste in these terms before:

(1) a broad base of relevant experience, so you can make informed comparisons;
(2) relevant skills of discernment, i.e., the acquired ability to identify important moves, novel twists, and the like;
(3) good sense, understood as the self-critical fairmindedness that allows us to be objective and unbiased.