Saturday, July 29, 2017

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit


Opening Passage:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (p. 1)

Summary: Part of what makes The Hobbit such a classic is that it is extraordinarily layered and balanced as a story. (And it is the failure to respect this, I think, that creates so many flaws in the Peter Jackson bloating of it.) We get some of the essential idea of it in Gandalf's own story-telling to Beorn:

Mr. Baggins saw then how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars. (p. 123)

What Bilbo perhaps misses is that he (and the reader) was captured in much the same way. Faced with a mass of dwarves, Bilbo would certainly have not tolerated the 'unexpected party'; but a few at a time was more difficult, and he, like Beorn, only gradually learned the actual number. Likewise, we (like the dwarves) only gradually learn the potential of the hobbit; and in part by the sharp contrast between his relative helplessness in the episode of the trolls (Chapter 2) and his bravery in the episode of the spiders (Chapter 8) or his resourcefulness in the hall of the Elvenking (Chapter 9).

But a tale of only symmetries is bland, and I think one of the most brilliant moves of the book is that the tale leads us to think of Smaug and his treasure as the goal of the whole journey -- although it did warn us here and there that things were perhaps not so simple -- but then shows us that this could not actually be it at all. The dwarves thought as far as the treasure; they had no clear plan for dealing with Smaug; and beyond that, nothing. But Tolkien recognizes that the actual target of the tale cannot be the dragon in the Mountain but what happens after. A formulaic writer would not lead Bilbo and the dwarves to Smaug just to have Smaug slain by Bard -- true, that was made possible by Bilbo and the dwarves, but it is a diversion of the apparent goal of the story that would not be commonly found elsewhere. But the move, allowing the Battle of the Five Armies rather than the death of Smaug to take the climactic height, is a vast improvement. It gives the book an epic feel; but also, and equally important, it makes the return to the Shire possible. Bilbo has become very resourceful -- but against the backdrop of the Battle, we see, as Gandalf says, that he is "only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!" (p. 303).

I had intended to look a bit more closely this reading at the influence of Beowulf on the work; Tolkien notes elsewhere that Beowulf was not consciously on his mind, but also recognizes that, while the story grew on its own principles, Beowulf was certainly an influence on features of it. But in fact the story sped by so smoothly that I never really got around to it. And that, I think, is a sign of quality all of its own.

Favorite Passage:

Then Bard drew his bow-string to his ear. The dragon was circling back, flying low, and as he came the moon rose above the eastern shore and silvered his great wings.

"Arrow!" said the bowman. "Black arrow! I have saved you to the last. You have never failed me and always I have recovered you. I had you from my father and he from of old. If ever you came from the forges of the true king under the Mountain, go now and speed well!" (p. 249)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Ballantine (New York: 1989).

Sovereignty over Languages

In virtue of this sovereignty over languages and letters, the free peoples must also be masters of their laws, for they impose on the laws the senses in which they constrain the powerful to observe them, even against their will.... It is naturally not in the power of monarchs to deprive the people of this sovereignty, but, in virtue of this very inalienable nature of human civil affairs, such sovereignty, inseparable from the people, contributes largely to the power of the monarchs, for they may issue their royal laws, which the nobles must accept, according to the senses that their peoples give to them.

[Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Bergin and Fisch, trs. Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY: 1976) p. 342 (section 936).]

This is an excellent point, and a fruitful one. It explains one of the major mechanisms by which customary law works and also why, in any society that is significantly democratic in intent, so much of politics inevitably becomes a struggle over language, as well as the point explicitly noted by Vico, why populism and monarchy tend to march together.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

John of St. Thomas on Modal Propositions

An interesting passage in John of St. Thomas's Outlines of Formal Logic:

And notice that every modal, if it is true, is a necessary proposition and has eternal truth because it applies the mode due the proposition's truth arising from an intrinsic connection. For example, if you said, For Peter to run is contingent, this is a necessary proposition itself, since contingency necessarily fits Peter's running. And from this you see how the First Cause is able to cause freedom and contingency in us while acting infallibly, because the First Cause not only causes the things themselves, but their modes also, and gives to each its own mode. And thus it does not follow from divine causality, for example, that Peter's walking is necessary; rather it is infallible and necessary that Peter's walking becomes so freely and contingently; for freedom and contingency fit this walking intrinsically and necessarily.

[John of St. Thomas, Outlines of Formal Logic, Wade, tr., Marquette University Press (Madison, WI: 1955) p. 94.] There are some interesting complexities, I think, with taking every true proposition with an alethically modal predicate to be necessarily true.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Journey Through a World of Craftsmanship

Once you start looking, it's easy to see that aesthetics (the area of philosophy concerned with art and beauty) is fundamental to understanding the world of The Hobbit and the views of its creator. Whether it's the magical map Gandalf gives Thorin, Gollum's clever riddles in the dark, the ring of power Bilbo finds, the artistic way Gandalf weaves his story for Beorn, or the peerless beauty of the Arkenstone of Thrain, the arts are continually a key feature in the story.

Works of art are to The Hobbit what surveillance gadgets and secret documents are to spy movies: integral elements that drive the plot. The story of The Hobbit is a journey through a world of craftsmanship, artifacts, and artistry.

[Philip Tallon, "'Pretty Fair Nonsense': Art and Beauty in the Hobbit", in The Hobbit and Philosophy, Bassham and Bronson, eds., John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (Hoboken, NJ: 2012), pp. 118-119.]

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

M and A

Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, pp. 187, 190:

The Virtue then of Agents, or their Benevolence, is always directly as the Moment of Good produc'd in like Circumstances, and inversely as their Abilitys: or B=(M/A)....

Since then Benevolence, or Virtue in any Agent, is as M/A, or as in (M+1)/A, and no Being can act above his natural Ability; must be the Perfection of Virtue where M=A, or when the Being acts to the utmost of his Power for the publick Good; and hence the Perfection of Virtue in this Case, or M/A, is as Unity. And this may shew us the only Foundation for the boasting of the Stoicks, "That a Creature suppos'd Innocent, by pursuing Virtue with his utmost Power, may in Virtue equal the Gods." For in their Case, if [A] or the Ability be Infinite, unless [M] or the Good to be produc'd in the whole, be so too, the Virtue is not absolutely perfect; and the Quotient can never surmount Unity.

Jane Austen, Emma, Volume III, Chapter VII:

“No, no,” said Emma, “it will not reckon low. A conundrum of Mr. Weston’s shall clear him and his next neighbour. Come, sir, pray let me hear it.”

“I doubt its being very clever myself,” said Mr. Weston. “It is too much a matter of fact, but here it is.—What two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?”

“What two letters!—express perfection! I am sure I do not know.”

“Ah! you will never guess. You, (to Emma), I am certain, will never guess.—I will tell you.—M. and A.—Em-ma.—Do you understand?”

Understanding and gratification came together. It might be a very indifferent piece of wit, but Emma found a great deal to laugh at and enjoy in it—and so did Frank and Harriet.—It did not seem to touch the rest of the party equally; some looked very stupid about it, and Mr. Knightley gravely said,

“This explains the sort of clever thing that is wanted, and Mr. Weston has done very well for himself; but he must have knocked up every body else. Perfection should not have come quite so soon.”

De vin, de poésie ou de vertu

Make Yourself Drunk
by Charles Baudelaire

You must always be drunk. That is it: it is the only point. In order not to feel the horrible burden of Time that breaks your shoulders and bends you to the earth, you must make yourself drunk without pause.

But of what? Of wine, of poetry, or of virtue, as you please. But make yourself drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace, on the green grass of a ditch, in the dreary solitude of your room, you awaken, drunkenness already lessened or lost, ask of the wind, of the wave, of the star, of the bird, of the clock, of all that flies, of all that groans, of all that rolls, of all that sings, of all that speaks, ask what the hour is, and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, will answer you: "It is the hour of getting drunk! In order not to be the martyred slaves of Time, make yourself drunk; make yourself drunk without cease! Of wine, of poetry, or of virtue, as you please."

A rough translation by myself. The original French, for those interested.

by Charles Baudelaire

Il faut être toujours ivre. Tout est là: c'est l'unique question. Pour ne pas sentir l'horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.

Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.

Et si quelquefois, sur les marches d'un palais, sur l'herbe verte d'un fossé, dans la solitude morne de votre chambre, vous vous réveillez, l'ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue, demandez au vent, à la vague, à l'étoile, à l'oiseau, à l'horloge, à tout ce qui fuit, à tout ce qui gémit, à tout ce qui roule, à tout ce qui chante, à tout ce qui parle, demandez quelle heure il est et le vent, la vague, l'étoile, l'oiseau, l'horloge, vous répondront: "Il est l'heure de s'enivrer! Pour n'être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps, enivrez-vous; enivrez-vous sans cesse! De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise."

Monday, July 24, 2017

Two Poem Drafts

You can tell it's July.

Summer Lassitude

A summer lassitude sweeps me by,
for hateful and hot is the fury of the sky
that bears whips of flame and arrows of gold
too fierce, too swift, too sharp, too bold,
too bitter in resentment and in pain:
a step, a step, a step, then one is slain.
The sunbeams all bear poison tips:
a scratch, and drowsy weakness grips
the eyes, and languid limbs
are useless till the sunlight dims.
The tyrant throned in summer sky
now flogs the skin, and not a sigh
of cooling wind dares ease the lash;
all flesh is whipped to smoke and ash,
collected like a tax to please
the golden sun with palace-ease.
A sleepy semblance like to death
infects my heartbeat and my breath
and sweeps me to a shady path
half-sheltered from the ceaseless wrath,
as work is idle, left undone,
in laze beneath the summer sun.

July Fragment

I have no humor; humid air
half the land leads to despair;
the heat is sticky and no one dares
to step outside, the sun to bear.

Cedar of Lebanon

Today is the feast of St. Sharbel Makhlouf, or Charbel, monk, priest, and hermit of Lebanon.


Feast of St. Sharbel

O Christ our Light, You fill the earth with light;
You choose worthy teachers to teach Your Church,
securing the good of those who love God,
molding Your people into Your image.
You give Your saints the word of life and truth;
as flame to flame they kindle ardent faith,
each a star to show us the path of life.

From Sharbel's hermitage a great light shines:
through his prayers we receive salvation,
through his intercessions, health of spirit.
O Sharbel, you found the pearl of great price,
giving everything that you might have it.
Our Lord Jesus Christ called you to follow,
and without hesitation you followed.


Cedars grow tall on Liban hills,
life rooted deeper than human will;
flame is bright over muddy grave
of a hermit-saint who hid his face;
the heart is kissed by burning light
as cedar soars to sun and sky,
is charged with day without a night,
and burns but is not burned.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Brave the Wild Winds and Unhearing Tide

Dover Cliffs
by William Lisle Bowles

On these white cliffs, that calm above the flood
Uprear their shadowing heads, and at their feet
Hear not the surge that has for ages beat,
How many a lonely wanderer has stood!
And, whilst the lifted murmur met his ear,
And o'er the distant billows the still eve
Sailed slow, has thought of all his heart must leave
To-morrow; of the friends he loved most dear;
Of social scenes, from which he wept to part!
Oh! if, like me, he knew how fruitless all
The thoughts that would full fain the past recall,
Soon would he quell the risings of his heart,
And brave the wild winds and unhearing tide—
The World his country, and his God his guide.