Saturday, August 11, 2018

HoP and "Generalised Ideas"

Martin Lenz has a truly baffling post on history of philosophy:

Historians (of philosophy) often like to mock people who indulge in generalised ideas about past periods such as the Middle Ages. “You wouldn’t believe”, they will say, “how diverse they were. The idea that all their philosophy is in fact about God is quite mistaken.” But then they turn around, saying that the medievals were quite different from us, where “us” is indexing some unified idea of a current philosophical state of the art. What I find funny, then, is that historians will chide you for claiming something about the past that they are happy to claim about the present. Last time I checked there was no “current philosophical debate”.

Perhaps this is true of Martin Lenz's work in history of philosophy, but this is simply a distortion of history of philosophy in general. Some key points here:

(1) Martin Lenz is doing exactly what he is chiding historians of philosophy for chiding other people about: he is indulging in a generalized idea about the current philosophical state of things (in this case, what historians of philosophy are doing now). His entire argument depends on there being, in fact, a "current philosophical debate" in order for any of his comments about historians of philosophy to make sense.

(2) History of philosophy is, conceptually, evidential in method: it is concerned with evidence for what concepts, positions, and arguments actually have been. And when most historians of philosophy criticize something for anachronism, their criticism is chiefly an evidential one. You can't be anachronistic by merely being wrong, or giving an incorrect generalization; you are only being anachronistic to the extent that the evidence indicates that you have failed to account for some salient historical differences in your inferences about the past.

(3) In the case of "the Middle Ages", we have clear and definite reason to think that it is anachronism-risky, because we know how the category was formed: it is an artificial miscellaneous category. People did not develop it while looking at various philosophical positions and saying, "Hey, look, quite a few of these people in this place and time are exhibiting such-and-such patterns, or are responding to each other by such-and-such means." The very notion of 'middle' here means whatever is not on either side. Thus the classification conveys no information whatsoever about the kinds of historical differences that could matter to interpretation of philosophical concepts, positions, or arguments. It covers a thousand years with several different civilizations with different educational infrastructures, different means of communication, different cultural issues to deal with, and some of these have already been shown, by evidence to make a significant difference. It's not indulging in "generalised ideas" that is the problem: it is disregard for evidence and a lack of critical thinking about the concepts being used.

(4) I have never met anyone working in history of philosophy who did not use a cautious or qualified sense of 'us' or 'we' when contrasting past with present. There is nothing, for instance, in the Adamson rule that takes "we" and "us" to be unqualified. In fact, this is not a natural reading of the rule at all; the "we and "us" in question is given by the rule itself, and it is not universalized: "Instead of assuming that the historical figures we study are motivated by the same philosophical worries that worry us, we need to understand why they care about each issue they raise." What 'we' means here is 'we, who are studying them', not 'we, all the philosophers in the world right now'. What are Adamson's rules, in fact? Suggestions for best practice in studying philosophers historically. People doing this are the 'we'. In other contexts, the 'we' might be more narrow and indirect -- 'we, the people studying mind-body relations with reference to such-and-such theories', or what have you.

(5) This is shown in another way. Lenz is right that one thing that causes historians of philosophy to contrast past and present is that philosophers in the present sometimes want to know why the arguments are relevant. Most academic philosophers, in my experience, have a purely utilitarian conception of argument, for instance; they see arguments as things to be used. They don't have the love of arguments themselves, as beautiful things to be studied in their own right, that is necessary for serious history of philosophy. But they are our colleagues, and we have to explain ourselves to them, because that is what a great part of academic life is, explaining yourself to your colleagues. Thus this kind of contrast is quite often an attempt to bridge between one's own work and the work of specific colleagues, or else an indefinite but not very large group of them. This is not uncommon. Again, the 'we' is not unqualified.

(6) 'Synchronic anachronism' is an oxymoron; if he wants a label, a better one is needed. We are not 'anachronistic' beings except in the sense that we can move with the times; having a bunch of heritages traceable to different times is not what anachronism is. The fact that the heritages are there and are traceable is in itself evidence that they are relevant (in some way) to the time in which we are, which is precisely what you don't characterize as anachronistic, outside of maybe polemical contexts that are not particularly relevant to the ordinary practice of HoP. What Lenz is concerned with is ordinary hermeneutics, and doesn't depend on anything to do with times or anachronism.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Dashed Off XVIII

All of Peirce's theory of signs is base din some sense on ◊, T, □; for instance, qualisign : Diamond :: sinsign : True :: legisign : Box. This raises questions about the exact interp. of the modalities in question, also of the appropriate logic & its interp. For instance, in some sense delome implies dicent implies rheme, but this is by reduction, it seems, and not nec. in the sense that a delome should be considered a rheme. (But then again....) The issue is complicated by Peirce's pragmatism, since it suggests that the interpretations should always be pragmatic: e.g., in terms of possibility, actuality, or generality (necessity of some kind) in the context of inquiry.

signification by community, by opposing relatedness, and by imputation
- commonality, correspondence, convention

NB that in 3Dialogues III, Berkeley has Philonous argue on the basis of the independence of sensible things on my mind, as well as continuous existence. (Their independence & continuity is due to their grounding in an independent and continuing Mind.)

"...the element of the wondrous in the structure of the world picture increases with the discovery of every new law." Planck

"...a bit of fun helps thought and tends to keep it pragmatical." Peirce (EP 2:12 [CP 5.71])

"Analogy suggests that the laws of natures are ideas or resolutions in the mind of some vast consciousness." Peirce (EP 2:13 [CP 5.107])

formalized arguments as iconic signs

formulae as diagrams of operational sequences

Something is only evidence in a context; change the context enough and you change the status of the evidence.

Natural rights cannot be arbitrary but by nature must be with respect to natural common good.

Royce's error argument is obviously strongest if you have a coherence, rather than a correspondence, theory of truth; modifying a coherence theory to avoid the argument starts turning it into a correspondence theory.

One can obviously have analogues to the error argument based on evil, ugliness, bad design, and the like.

The absolution that Symeon the New Theologian attributes to the illuminated seems to be, if he is not merely mistaken, intercessory and invocative rather than sacramental -- a child's speaking for his father rather than a magistrate's speaking for the Crown.

Most arguments against natural law can easily be adapted to arguments against natural rights -- unsurprisingly, since the latter can only be rights under the former. But this is often overlooked.

responsible participation in the liturgical commonwealth
(1) as coming together for support of sacramental life.
(1.a) patience with each other
(1.b) truthfulness
(1.c) amiability
(1.d) moderation in manner of action
(1.e) sociability
(1.f) indignation against abuses.
(2) as organizing resources for support of sacramental life
(2.a) generosity to those in need
(2.b) supporting the Church splendidly
(3) as overcoming challenges
(3.a) self-discipline in action
(3.b) striving to be greater and better, and honoring those who are
(3.c) not compromising with the world or settling; seeking honor only before God
(3.d) fortitude even unto martyrdom

"It is an eternal law in heaven that the lesser shall share by means of the greater in what lies beyond being." Palamas (Hom 53)

Box: sameness across differences; Diamond: differences

the Divided Line as semiotic
image as sign of body as sign of mathematical object as sign of Form as sign of Good
ascent from sign to signified

The question of the deposition of popes
(Cajetan): Divine law requires that if anyone is heretical, they be avoided; avoiding a pope under divine law would require an exercise of authority; it cannot be an authority higher than that of a pope; therefore it must be a ministerial rather than a jurisdictional power. There is a relevant ministerial power, the one whereby the man is joined to office. (A power causing union so as to generate may equally be a cause of corruption.) It would work by causing in the person a disposition inconsistent with the papacy -- publicity of pertinacity, or some such.
(Suarez): The Church cannot possess a true power of jurisdiction over the pope (only Christ can); but it can declare heresy in the name of Christ; by virtue of this declaration, Christ takes back the papacy; at which point the man becomes subject to the Church.
(Bellarmine): The pope will not in fact fall into such heresy, but arguing solely from principles, a notorious heretic is ipso facto no longer a member of the Church; one who is not a member of the Church cannot be pope; therefore the matter depends on the conditions by which one can say the pope is in notorious heresy.
--- The whole deposition problem is in the inconsistent triad: (1) The Holy See is judged of no one; (2) The pope may be deposed for heresy, under the right conditions; (3) Deposition for heresy requires judgment by a superior. One of these must be weakened or distinguished. Bellarmine distinguishes (c) by holding that in extraordinary circumanstances one may be ipso facto deposed. Cajetan weakes (c) by saying that if conditions are met, it actually requires only a declaration. Suarez takes the declaration to be dispositive to Christ's deposition, and thus distinguishes (a).
--- The common opinion that in a matter of deposition the declaration could be issued by the College of Cardinals seems to me to be completely worthless and without foundation. The College is entirely an instrument of the papacy and has no authority beyond what is given to it by the papacy. It is not like an ecumenical council, or even a general council, which has full and intrinsic authority even sedevacante.
--- Note that Vatican I strickly speaking says only that (1) No ecclesial authority surpasses the authority of the Holy See; (2) the Holy See's judgment is not to be disclaimed; (3) no one may judge the Holy See's judgments; (4) No one may appeal to an ecumenical council, as if to a higher authority, from the judgments of the Holy See. This is more limited than one might expect. However, safeguarding this seems to require that the person of the Pope is also in some way and to some extent exempt for any tribunal less than divine. (Note, for a traditional view, the Apology of Ennodius from the Synod of Palmyra 502.) A question remains, though, of how far this goes. It is clear that the office itself cannot be judged, nor the man in office to the extent he exercises the office. It is also clear that the man can be rebuked without any formal judgment of this kind. And it is less clear, even if probable, that the man cannot be judged in other respects. Note, however, Unam Sanctam, and the question becomes how much the man can actually be distinguished from the office.
--- The usual appeal to canon 1556 is irrelevant to the problem; an ecumenical council (or even less!) also has authority over canon law, for instance, and the canons must anyway in unusual circumstances be interpreted appropriately to the situation, which is precisely the point at issue.

"If we pray in a properly Christian way, we cannot say more than what is contained in the Lord's prayer." Sheptytsky

Every experience is an experience of cause and effect.

act & potential -> cause
act & potential & intellect -> sufficient reason
act & potential & will -> proper value

"all the instruments we use for knowing and speaking are signs." John of St. Thomas

The truth of the problem of induction is that we have only a very vague sense of our rational powers; we know our rational capability mostly indirectly.

the importance of low-probability, high-leverage lines of inquiry

What is predicated analogically is predicated in some way according to an ordering of sign to signified.

Thinking requires a thinker because thinking and thinker are one thing, not separated, in the actual thought.

thinking requires a thinker, obligation requires an obliger (law requires a legislator), design requires a designer

Descartes in effect identifies sin and ignorance (letter to Pere Mesland 1644, AT IV, 117)

'individuality includes infinity' (Leibniz)

Sets presuppose possible variations.

Life is what gives death meaning, not vice versa.

All knowledge of fact involves knowledge of the consequence of one affirmation on another.

Hobbes's God is literally an indestructible, invisible, homogenous fluid.
Hobbes's Church is simply the nation as required by the dictator to assemble in a profession of faith as an act of loyalty.

"Were there no God, the idea of an absolutely or infinitely perfect Being could never have been made or feigned, neither by politicians, nor by poets, nor philosophers, nor any other." Cudworth

Determining 'degrees of belief' by betting behavior is like measuring creativity by salary.

"Theology is thought, whether we agree with it or not. Mythology was never thought, and nobody could really agree with it or disagree with it." Chesterton

It is remarkable how many human capabilities depend on interaction -- human individuals are undeniably more in community than they are alone, even setting aside what human beings achieve cooperatively.

Herder opposes the divine origin thesis for language for the same reason he opposes root innateness of language: it is inconsistent with infinite perfectibility because it sets limits to human progress. Note that all of his more general objections are analogous to objections to divine arguments: rudeness of the early, God of the gaps, unpromising for inquiry, inability to know divine purposes, unfittingness to the divine.

occasionalism (impotentism) // immaterialism

pleasantness, usefulness, and nobleness as the primary families of value in itself

market value, sentimental value, and dignity as the primary families of value with respect to use

What begins to be has a cause.
What begins to be understood has a perceived sufficient reason.
What begins to be loved has a perceived and "felt" natural value.

The question of how much evidence one needs to draw a conclusion is an axiological question, not a logical one.

Devotion requires reflection or meditation.
Devotion constructs its own duties.

The evidential relation is ternary: E is evidence for H in the context of inquiry I.

The concept of evidence depends on the concept of truth. Any account of evidence that is divorced from the account of truth is untenable.

kinds of art culture
talent-expressive, deliberately wide appreciation: Classical
talent-expressive, deliberately narrow appreciation: Technical
taste-expressive, deliberately wide appreciation: Popular
taste-expressive, deliberately narrow appreciation: Gated

Confucian ethics can be seen as in some sense pluralistic: we have, as it were, four basic morality systems, based on sympathy, on shame, on deference, and on standards, which are as it were integrated into a fifth, concerned with a fully human life that balances the other four in a sustainable way.

icon : word in letters :: saint : word in speech :: Christ : word in mind

uses of episode
(1) character establishment
(2) plotline linking
(3) plausibility building for plot points

In the sacraments, Christ is Weaver, Loom, and Tapestry all at once.

Every contract, to be fully just, must involve a regard for common good, deference to that which lends the contract authority, and fairness in exchange.

All grace is, seen as from the Father, favor; seen as from the Son, assimilation to Christ; and seen as from the Spirit, communion.

Just as baptism can be done in incomplete (emergency) and completed form, preserving the essence in both, so it makes sense to say that marriage too has an incomplete and completed (formally recognized) form. Think about this.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Teresa Benedicta a Cruce

Today is the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, also known as Edith Stein. Born into a Jewish family, she became an atheist as a teenager, and went on to study philosophy with Edmund Husserl. She was one of the more important students associated with him, helping him to put his notes in order for publication. She was unable to continue a career in academic philosophy, however; there were not that many opportunities for women, and the rise of the Nazis would soon put an end to what few there were. Reading the works of St. Teresa of Avila, she converted to Catholicism, and, with her sister Rosa, joined the same order as St. Teresa, the Discalced Carmelites. As the Nazi menace expanded, the order moved the sisters to the Netherlands in the hope of getting them out of the reach of the anti-semitic government. The Netherlands were invaded, but it was not until 1942 that the Nazis, angered by a statement by the Dutch bishops condemning Nazism, began a massive crackdown on Jewish converts to Catholicism. The two sisters were caught and shipped to Auschwitz on August 7. There are no records of what happened then, but it is generally thought that they were gassed in the gas chamber, with a great many others, on August 9. She was beatified in 1987 and canonized in 1998, both by Pope St. John Paul II.

From Potency and Act, her phenomenological study of the concepts of Thomistic philosophy:

I am conscious of myself in my actual being, and I am conscious of this being. My being is momentary, but it cannot be as purely momentary. Actual being emerges from a potential being and passes into a potential being, but all potentiality is phenomenally upheld [halten] by actuality and it cannot uphold [Halt geben] actuality. What upholds me in my temporally discrete existence between being and nonbeing? When I have pressed ahead into the transcendent sphere, I may conceive of the substance evinced in my flowing actual being as the bearer of this being.

...Can anything uphold [Halt geben] my frail [hinfällig] being, which touches upon genuine existence [Existenz] only from one instant to another, save true being wherein nothing of nonbeing is found and which stands changeless by itself alone, unable to have, nor needing, any other upholding [Halt]? And does not the very frailty of my own being lend certainty--not only to the idea but to the reality [Realität] of this pure, true, "absolute [absolut]" being?

[Edith Stein, Potency and Act, Redmond, tr., ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2009) pp. 20-21.]

A Quick Trip to Scotland, Miscellanea V

Pictures from the Train

Inverness: The River Ness

Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Evening Note for Wednesday, August 8

Thought for the Evening: Catholic Social Teaching and the Notes of the Church

I mentioned recently that the recent official local catechism that I thought most valuable was the catechism for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a Byzantine rite church in communion with Rome. It is titled Christ Our Pascha; it is now available online in searchable PDF (with a resources page as well). One of the interesting things in how COP is arranged is that it draws a direct link between Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Ecclesiology, but recognizing an analogy between the first principles of the former and the Notes of the Church.

The primary Notes of the Church are, of course, One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Taking the Church as "the Model for the Human Community", however, raises the question of how the Church as a community transfigures or uplifts human community itself. Every human community is based on some kind of common good -- that's the 'common' in 'community'. The Church is not different in this regard: it has a common good, and the common good, Christ and salvation, is what makes the Church One. This is not some arbitrary or alien common good, however; since human beings have union with God as their natural destination, the common good of the Church completes those of human communities. As the COP says (#920 (p. 288)):

Fulfilling her mission to transfigure society, the Church communicates to society her own experience of communion in the moral principles of Christian life. The principle of the common good, in particular, requires that society create conditions for the free development of the person, who simultaneously works for the good of society.

This mission of transfiguration is found in the other notes, as well. To say that the Church is Holy is to say that it makes saints, or in other words, provides the means for divine life, which is expressed in love of God and neighbor. This is an uplifting of the living-together, or civic friendship (although the COP doesn't use that phrase), that constitutes civil society, which is structured by a sort of general good will to one's neighbors, i.e., fellow citizens.

The Church is Catholic is to say that it has a mission to everyone, each and all together, in and as a communion; this corresponds to the principle of solidarity, which is concerned with the mutual dependence of people in society.

The principle of solidarity is generally linked to the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels should support (provide help-in-reserve or subsidium) the lower levels, and not supplant or suppress them. This corresponds with the ecclesial note of Apostolicity; an apostolate is a received mission of service, and the service-mission of the Church, received through and in imitation of the Apostles, is the subsidiary working of grace, not supplanting but supporting the work of society, and providing it the assistance it needs to overcome impediment and extend itself to new good.

COP gives only a brief sketch of these correspondences, but in many ways I think it is the best way to organize Catholic Social Teaching, namely, to take CST as the Church drawing from its own character as a society of divine vocation (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic) to work for a civil society of justice (based on common good, civic friendship, solidarity, and subsidiarity).

[Christ Our Pascha: Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Synod of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (Edmonton: 2016) pp. 287-289.]

Various Links of Interest

* Geoff Boeing, Comparing US City Street Orientations and City Street Orientations Around the World

* Shawn Floyd, Dissecting Hospitality

* Jon D. Schaff, My Antonia at One Hundred

* Jeff Maysh, How an Ex-Cop Rigged MacDonald's Monopoly Game and Stole Millions

* Carlo Rovelli, Physics Needs Philosophy / Philosophy Needs Physics

* Tommie Shelby and Julian Lucas, The Philosopher King: Tommie Shelby on MLK

* John P Joy, Disputed Questions on Papal Infallibility

* Kashmir Hill, When a Stranger Decides to Destroy Your Life

* Colin Hunter, Emmy Noether’s revolutionary theorem explained, from kindergarten to PhD

Currently Reading

Frances Mossiker, Napoleon and Josephine
Edith Stein, Potency and Act
Jean-Luc Marion, The Visible and the Revealed
Thomas Petri, Aquinas and the Theology of the Body
Jules Verne, An Antarctic Mystery

Seeds of True Knowledge

But in this age of ours, when we see none who are philosophers — for I do not consider those who merely wear the cloak of a philosopher to be worthy of that venerable name — it seems to me that men (those, at least, whom the teaching of the Academicians has, through the subtlety of the terms in which it was expressed, deterred from attempting to understand its actual meaning) should be brought back to the hope of discovering the truth, lest that which was then for the time useful in eradicating obstinate error, should begin now to hinder the casting in of the seeds of true knowledge.

Augustine, Letter 1, to Hermogenianus. The letter is interesting for understanding Augustine's criticism of Academic skepticism in his work Contra Academicos: he claims that Academic skepticism was valuable in its time because the state of debate among the different philosophical schools was such that there was too much danger that in the heat of argument people would rush into affirming errors. Now that debate has cooled, however, people are using skepticism as an excuse not to inquire, or else taking it as a message of despair, and thus a countervailing push is now necessary.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #25: L'Étoile du sud

"Go on; I am listening."

"I have the honour to ask you for your daughter's hand."


"Yes. My request seems to surprise you. Perhaps you will forgive me if I have some difficulty in understanding why it appears so strange. I am twenty-six years old ; my name is Victor Cyprien; I am a mining engineer, and left the Polytechnic as second on the list. My family is honest and respected, if it is not rich. The French consul at Capetown can answer any questions about me you are likely to ask, and my friend Pharamond Barthes, the explorer, whom you—like everybody else in Griqualand— know right well, can add his testimony. I am here on a scientific mission in the name of the Academy of Sciences and the French Government. Last year I gained the Houdart prize at the Institute for my researches on the chemistry of the volcanic rocks of Auvergne. My paper on the diamantiferous basin of the Vaal, which is nearly finished, is sure of a good reception from the scientific world. When I started on my mission I was appointed Assistant. Professor at the Paris School of Mines, and I have already engaged my rooms on the third floor at No. 104 of the Rue Université. My appointments will, during the first year, bring me in two hundred pounds. That is hardly an El Dorado, I know, but with my private work I can nearly double it. My wants being few, I have enough to be happy on. And so, Mr. Watkins, I have the honour to ask you for your daughter's hand."

From the firm, decided tone of this little speech it was easy to see that Cyprien was accustomed to go straight to the point in what he did, and to speak his mind freely.

L'Étoile du sud (The Star of the South, often titled in English The Vanished Diamond, is actually a collaborative effort, in the sense that the original draft was a manuscript by Paschal Grousset and this was reworked by Verne. As far as I have been able to discover, however, we do not know exactly how much is Grousset and how much is Verne. The tale is, however, Verne-like in character, having many features in common with other tales by Verne (it is heavily dominated by geography, in this case of South Africa; it makes use of a scientific idea, chemical synthesis of diamonds, in a typically Vernean way; a carefully planned means for saving the heroes; and so forth). Unless there is evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to take this work in its final form to be largely due to Verne.

Cyprien Méré, or Victor Cyprian, which the English translations often substitute, is, as he says to Mr. Watkins in the opening paragraph, a mining engineer who wishes to marry the daughter of a wealthy South African landowner. Before he will be allowed to do so, however, he must make his fortune, and so he sets out to become wealthy by way of diamonds, first by staking part of a claim and trying to find diamonds that way, and then, when doesn't seem to be panning out, by trying to synthesize them. (The history of diamond synthesis is a complicated one; there were claims of having succeeded at it in 1879, a few years before this book was published, and that claim seems to have been true, but attempts to replicate only rarely succeeded.) His experiment breaks, but in the wreckage of it, he discovers a very large diamond. The diamond vanishes however, and at the same time a black man, Mataki, who has been helping Méré, also vanishes. Méré thinks it very unlikely that Mataki has stolen the diamond -- but if he does not discover how the diamond disappeared, Mataki may hang for theft, and without the diamond Méré may never have a chance to marry the woman he loves.

Holy Transfiguration

The adoption of the sons of God is through a certain conformity of image to the natural Son of God. Now this takes place in two ways: first, by the grace of the wayfarer, which is imperfect conformity; secondly, by glory, which is perfect conformity, according to 1 John 3:2: "We are now the sons of God, and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be: we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him, because we shall see Him as He is." Since, therefore, it is in baptism that we acquire grace, while the clarity of the glory to come was foreshadowed in the transfiguration, therefore both in His baptism and in His transfiguration the natural sonship of Christ was fittingly made known by the testimony of the Father: because He alone with the Son and Holy Ghost is perfectly conscious of that perfect generation....

Just as in the Baptism, where the mystery of the first regeneration was proclaimed, the operation of the whole Trinity was made manifest, because the Son Incarnate was there, the Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove, and the Father made Himself known in the voice; so also in the transfiguration, which is the mystery of the second regeneration, the whole Trinity appears—the Father in the voice, the Son in the man, the Holy Ghost in the bright cloud; for just as in baptism He confers innocence, signified by the simplicity of the dove, so in the resurrection will He give His elect the clarity of glory and refreshment from all sorts of evil, which are signified by the bright cloud.

Thomas Aquinas, 3.45.4c&ad2.

Music on My Mind

Special Consensus (ft. 10 String Symphony, John Hartford, and Alison Brown), "Squirrel Hunters". A little instrumental to get you through the day.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Fortnightly Book, August 5

Frances Mossiker was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1906. She published her first book in 1961, at the age of 55, and became a worldwide bestseller of historical works, both nonfiction and fiction; so successful that she is one of the few non-French writers whose works on France became popular enough to receive multiple awards in France, which does not generally happen. She was very famous for the depth of her research, and her penchant for letting the evidence speak for itself. In 1965 she published Napoleon and Josephine: Biography of a Marriage, which is, as the subtitle says, an experiment in writing a biography not about a person so much as about a marriage, and it will be the next fortnightly book.

This book comes to me from my grandmother; it actually has the bookplate of my great-great-aunt, who lived in Dallas and seems to have had a particular interest in Dallas authors like Mossiker.

Jules Verne, The Begum's Millions [with Paschal Grousset]; Robur the Conqueror; Master of the World


Opening Passages: From The Begum's Millions:

"These English newspapers are really quite well written!" the good doctor murmured to himself as he settled into a large leather armchair.

All his life Dr. Sarrasin had indulged in such soliloquies, no doubt a sign of a certain absentmindedness. (p. 1)

From Robur the Conqueror:

Bang! Bang!

The pistol shots were almost simultaneous. A cow peacefully grazing fifty yards away received one of the bullets in her back. She had nothing to do with the quarrel all the same.

From Master of the World:

If I speak of myself in this story, it is because I have been deeply involved in its startling events, events doubtless among the most extraordinary which this twentieth century will witness. Sometimes I even ask myself if all this has really happened, if its pictures dwell in truth in my memory, and not merely in my imagination. In my position as head inspector in the federal police department at Washington, urged on moreover by the desire, which has always been very strong in me, to investigate and understand everything which is mysterious, I naturally became much interested in these remarkable occurrences. And as I have been employed by the government in various important affairs and secret missions since I was a mere lad, it also happened very naturally that the head of my department placed in my charge this astonishing investigation, wherein I found myself wrestling with so many impenetrable mysteries. (p. 11)

Summary: 'Begum' can mean a number of different things, but in general it is an honorific title for a woman of very high standing and wealth. The occasion that sparks The Begum's Millions is the discovery that there are two living heirs to the vast fortune of a begum who has recently died in India and whom the British government has been trying to find for some time. One is Dr. Sarrasin of France, and the other is Professor Schultze of Germany. Dr. Sarrasin, a hygienic enthusiast in a time in which hygiene enthusiasms are rampant, proposes to use his part of the fortune to build a perfectly hygienic city, one that will be run on medical principles and avoid nasty, disease-breeding appurtenances of city life, like carpet and wallpaper. Professor Schultze takes the whole idea as not only absurd but as somehow personally offensive as a proposal coming from a degenerate Frenchman, and so decides to build another city devoted to destroying Dr. Sarrasin's city and proving the superiority of Germans over the rest of the world. They make deals with the United States to buy significant portions of the Oregon Territory, and thus in the Pacific Northwest there are soon built two cities: hyperhygienic France-Ville and hyperindustrial Stahlstadt. It is not, I think, an accident that the major powers -- France, German, Britain, and the United States -- all contribute to the crisis that will result. Professor Schultze makes his city a giant weapons factory, building the best weapons in the world, eagerly sought out by all the militaries of the world; his arsenal includes a secret bomb that will kill while leaving buildings standing and the most powerful cannon that has ever been made. Will the friends of Dr. Sarassin be able to stop him from firing his cannon in order to destroy the City of Well-Being? The answer is No. But Professor Schulze is playing with some dangerous toys, and not just dangerous to his enemies.

The other two works are more closely related to each other than to Begum, but Robur explicitly refers back to it, since the strange phenomena that are being seen in the sky are suggested at one point to be Professor Schultze's never-ending shot; they also share with it a theme of the problems that can come with new technological advances, if turned to personal grievance rather than the good of all. The Weldon Institute is full of aficionados interested in dirigibles, and they are trying to invent the best dirigible of all time. But a man named Robur attends who insists that what will really conquer the air is not the lighter-than-air dirigible but the heavier-than-air flying machine. When he is humiliated by Uncle Prudence and Phil Evans, the major figures in the Weldon Institute, he retaliates by kidnapping them and forcibly taking them on a journey around the world in his flying machine, The Albatross. They eventually escape, and The Albatross is destroyed, and they attempt to go on as if Robur hadn't changed the nature of flight forever; but Robur is not dead, and appears again in a new flying machine as they are testing their new dirigible. Once invented, it is out there.

Master of the World, like Robur the Conqueror, begins with a series of events, each more mysterious than the last, as strange things keep happening. Finally people start piecing together the evidence to form a picture: the strange happenings are due to a machine that can somehow go on land, on water, under water, and (as they discover later) through the air. Every nation in the world wants it, because it would give an insuperable military advantage to anyone who had it. John Strock, a federal detective, manages to hunt down the machine, which he discovers is called The Terror, and captained by its inventor, Robur, who has taken to calling himself the Master of the World. Can John Strock destroy or capture The Terror in time to save the world from a man who will unleash terror on any nation in the world, as he pleases? The answer is No. But Robur's diabolical pride will go before a fall; devils are cast down from heaven.

One of the difficulties with technological advance is that it destroys as well as builds, and it cannot really be undone; if someone can invent a supercannon or an amazing flying machine, it is now proven to be possible for anyone with sufficient ingenuity and resources. The attempt of Uncle Prudence and Phil Evans to pretend that dirigibles are still the future of air travel when they have seen The Albatross is nothing but folly. But at the same time, pride and malice can do terrible things with the technology. There is no significant technology that militaries do not attempt to turn into weapons of war -- if there is a way to use it, they will find it. People may use technological advances to perpetrate new and horrendous criminal acts, and perhaps even to do it with impunity. The only things that prevent this from spiraling entirely out of control into a dystopian nightmare are concern for public welfare (Begum), ordinary human compassion (Robur), and humility (Master). But in dealing with human beings, none of these can simply be assumed. Every technological advance gives us new and almost divine power; and every technological advance is a test of our humanity, because it can tempt us to act like devils until we destroy ourselves and others.

In addition to the books, I watched the Master of the World movie with Charles Bronson and Vincent Price, which was great fun -- a low-budget movie, but excellently done. It is only semi-faithful as an adaptation; it collapses Robur and Master (although it draws mostly from the former), works to build up more sympathy for Robur than the books do, and of course creates the inevitable love triangle, but it also obviously makes an attempt to capture elements of both books and never loses sight of the fact that Robur's invention is wonderful as well as terrible. Price is excellent and Bronson fairly good; the writing is quite decent and makes up for a lot of the obvious budget limitations; and they unabashedly play up what we would call the steampunk elements in a way that works. Cinemeatic adaptations of Verne tend to be very bad, but this, while making the usual Hollywood 'improvements', actually results in something worth seeing.

Favorite Passages: From The Begum's Millions, part of our introduction to Professor Schultze, which must be a record for German stereotypes per word:

The professor set his newspaper on the edge of the table and continued working on an article that was to appear two days later in the periodical Annalen für Physiologie (Annals for Physiology). There would be no indiscretion in revealing that this article had for its title:

Why Are All Frenchmen Stricken in Different Degrees with Hereditary Degeneration?

While the professor pursued his task, the dinner composed of a large plate of sausages and sauerkraut, flanked by a gigantic stein of beer, had been discreetly served on a round table by the corner of the fireplace. The professor set down his pen to eat his supper, which he savored more than one might expect of a man so serious. Then he rang for his coffee, lit a great porcelain pipe, and returned to his work. (p. 34)

From Robur the Conqueror:

In an instant a majestic sound, a roar as of the tempest, mounted towards them and, as if a humid fog had been projected into the air, the atmosphere sensibly freshened. Below were the liquid masses. They seemed like an enormous flowing sheet of crystal amid a thousand rainbows due to refraction as it decomposed the solar rays. The sight was sublime.

Before the falls a footbridge, stretching like a thread, united one bank to the other. Three miles below was a suspension-bridge, across which a train was crawling from the Canadian to the American bank.

"The falls of Niagara!" exclaimed Phil Evans....

From Master of the World:

"Now, sir," said she, "now--was I wrong?"

"Wrong? About what?"

"In saying that the Great Eyrie was the home of the devil?"

"Nonsense; this Robur was not the devil!"

"Ah, well!" replied the old woman, "he was worthy of being so!" (p. 127)

Recommendation: Recommended, all.


Jules Verne, Master of the World, Airmont Publishing (New York: 1965).

Jules Verne, The Begum's Millions, Luce, tr., Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CN: 2005).