Saturday, September 29, 2018

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin


Opening Passage:

Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P——, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.

For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it,—which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray’s Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.

Summary: Uncle Tom's Cabin is intended to show slavery "in a living dramatic reality", on the principle that there are many who would be more likely to oppose slavery, or to oppose it more vehemently, if they could somehow see the real character of it. Because of this, Stowe is very careful not to load the deck in her favor; her people are each of a type, and she tries to show that kind of person in the best light that she can -- even, it should be noted, the wicked Simon Legree, with his lost daughter and the obvious fact that some of his cruelty is obviously his attempting to counterbalance a conscience that, though not guilty, is quite clearly unsettled. Legree is evil, but humanly so, hard as it sometimes is to read what he does. Most of the rest are often decent and at worst selfish or vulgar. And this is, I think, effective for Stowe's purposes, since it makes vivid the running theme of the work: that slavery runs against every impulse of nature and grace. It tears mother from child, husband from wife, sibling from sibling; it leaves rational beings uneducated and gives human beings corrupting power; defenses of it are purely abstract rationalizations that require reason to be divorced from human sympathy; it treats physical matters as more important than matters of virtue; it sits poorly with a vivid recognition that Christ died for all alike; it is clear and obvious that it sometimes puts the holy entirely in the power of the wicked; it batters faith and leaves souls unsaved.

There is another running theme of the work, I think, and one closely associated with Stowe's desire to present slavery "in a living dramatic reality": that the overcoming of slavery is something that can only happen by the influence of person on person. There are many decent people in the book who do nothing, or who are actively complicit, not because they see nothing wrong but because they see themselves essentially as powerless. They don't know what to do, or they don't see how they could survive the sacrifice it would take to do something, or they rationalize that their complicity is itself a kind of sacrifice for a greater good, or they (like Miss Ophelia, and, indeed, like many of Stowe's readers) know but don't realize what is going on. What is necessary for those people is good example that shows that they are not, in fact, so powerless; the Quakers, or Eva, or Uncle Tom do good not just in their own right but by example, showing what can be done. To be sure, not everyone can be moved to good by example; some are too locked in their own patterns of thought to see it, and some, like Legree, are outraged by it.

Moral luck is a concept much discussed in recent philosophical work, and it's a matter of interest to Stowe, as well. Much of the stability of slavery is due to the inertia of custom and education in the South; the people of New England are not inherently better -- they have better ideas, but they don't have better temperaments and often not even better characters. People who would never have to worry much about complicity in slavery elsewhere can hardly avoid it in the South -- but they were born and raised in the South, and so have been entangled in it all their lives, while people elsewhere never had that problem. It seems very much a matter of luck -- luck of birth, luck of education, luck of whom they have met in their lives. But this does not make the moral judgment against slavery vanish; it involves things that are wrong in themselves, whatever explains one's being involved in it, and whatever one's precise level of complicity and culpability. And we are responsible regardless. As Tom says to Cassy, "If I get to be as hard-hearted as that ar’ Sambo, and as wicked, it won’t make much odds to me how I come so; it’s the bein’ so,—that ar’s what I’m a dreadin’." Moral luck tends to be a puzzle if we are only talking about one's personal guilt; but guilt is not the primary issue in moral responsibility -- right and wrong are.

I'm always struck, reading this work, by how reminiscent of Platonic ideas are its general themes. It might be a little strong to apply the Platonic notion that nothing bad happens to the just person here, but in fact Uncle Tom's victory is precisely that while Legree can harm his body, his soul is entirely out of reach because it is virtuous, and Tom who, like the Neoplatonists said of Socrates, has the victory of an unjust death, is not lessened by it. And when he pities the wicked people around him, it is not a sign of weakness but the ultimate defiance, in exactly the way a Platonist would say: the wicked are more to be pitied than the oppressed, because the former have the life that is objectively worse. Any other view of the situation in the end concedes that might makes right. It is, I think, a line of reasoning that people do not like to hear today; but this does not make the Platonic arguments less cogent, nor does it make the literary depiction of it "in living dramatic reality" a less powerful and magnetic example.

Favorite Passage:

Tom’s Methodist hymn-book, which, in his hurry, he had forgotten, he now held up and turned over.

"Humph! pious, to be sure. So, what’s yer name,—you belong to the church, eh?”

“Yes, Mas’r,” said Tom, firmly.

“Well, I’ll soon have that out of you. I have none o’ yer bawling, praying, singing niggers on my place; so remember. Now, mind yourself,” he said, with a stamp and a fierce glance of his gray eye, directed at Tom, “I’m your church now! You understand,—you’ve got to be as I say.”

Something within the silent black man answered No! and, as if repeated by an invisible voice, came the words of an old prophetic scroll, as Eva had often read them to him,—“Fear not! for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by name. Thou art MINE!”

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Poem a Day XX

As this is the last weekday in September, this ends this weekday-only version of Poem a Day.

Out of Ideas

When the flickering flame
has gone as it came,
I can say without shame
that no one's to blame
if the words are now lame;
it's the end of the game.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Music on My Mind

Weezer (ft. Weird Al Yankovic), "Africa". It's an interesting musical-humor mix; it's a straight cover, but the video is a light parody of some of the videos for Weezer's best known songs ("Buddy Holly" and "The Sweater Song" are the obvious ones).

Poem a Day XIX

Reason and Grace

Nothing I am
and nothing I'll be;
my footsteps are washed
by the sands of the sea.
The waves rolling in
will cover all trace
and nothing remain
but reason and grace.

Shout out my name;
the echo will die,
lost on the wind
in the silence of sigh.
My name in the air
cannot hold me in place;
nothing's forever
but reason and grace.

Conquer the world;
the borders all break,
bursting like bubbles
or dreams when we wake;
put up the bronze
of the kings of the race;
it all will fall down
except reason and grace.

My tales will be finished,
the course will be run,
and darkness will fall
with the dousing of sun;
not a bit does it matter,
though tears touch my face:
there is nothing enduring
save reason and grace.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Jottings on the Game of Favourites

Like favourites
Made proud by princes, that advance their pride

I am certain of very little in this post.

We all know of the danger of nepotism; accusing someone of nepotism is for us a way of accusing them of corruption. But if you look at the history of appointing family to political position, you notice that there is a very long stretch of time during which a lot of people are trying to get princes to be nepotists. And there is a reason for that. For instance, there was a position in the papal curia called Cardinal-Nephew (cardinalis nepos), which is where we get the name 'nepotism'; it was literally a position for relatives of the Pope. But it was an anti-corruption position. The reason people pushed for nepotism was because they were trying to avoid something they saw as much worse: favoritism or favouritism. They were intensely aware of the corruption that came with favouritism, princes letting their favourites do what they pleased.

With most corruption, you don't really have to worry that much about the prince himself. Princes can be corrupt, but what matters is how the prince's decisions are actually put into effect, which is almost always through other people, and it's there that corruption becomes very worrisome. The most corrupt people are often not the princes themselves but the people who can do whatever they please because they have effective power and are protected by the prince. But while there are always exceptions, people tend not to pick their favourites from family, because your family is probably not excessively inclined to flatter you and pander to your wants. You don't really get to pick your family; and chances are, you are very aware of the failings of members of your family. You know not to trust Uncle Joe with money; you know that Cousin Mary is trustworthy except when she's been drinking. And your family has obligations to you, at least indirectly; this is very obvious in a society, like that of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, when it's often the case that the real political power is not that of the individual but of the family house. Favourites are a matter of pleasure, and thus of temptation; family is a matter of obligation, and thus governing by way of family is more complicated and restrictive than governing by way of favourites. You don't need everybody to be family, but family can be leveraged against favourites, and family is less dangerous than favourites. Nobody thought it was a perfect system (everyone knows people in their family who can't be trusted with power), but it is very definitely not an anything-goes system. St. Pius V tried to get out of it, and his cardinals and the Spanish empire kept demanding that he appoint a Cardinal-Nephew. And that's exactly why: they wanted to avoid at all costs a favouritist system. And it worked beautifully! St. Pius V gave in, and had to give his grandnephew a position, and then actively kept him on a short leash because he didn't trust him with very much power.

In any case, there was one kind of situation that would inevitably bring the whole notion of a Cardinal-Nephew down. And it wasn't the really awful family politicking of the Renaissance; that was certainly awful and not at all a recommendation of a nepotistic system, but in fact the politicking was as severe inside as between families, so nepotism usually meant at least some kind of checks and balances. But while people don't usually pick favourites from family, sometimes they do. And it doesn't matter if the Pope is generally good and decent; if he is overly indulgent to his Cardinal-Nephews, to family in effective power, you have an extremely dangerous situation. Then you get il cardinale padrone, the Boss Cardinal -- and you are back in all the corruption of the favouritist system, and with no way to counter it, because indulged family is in some ways more secure than indulged favourites. And it was the increasing tendency of this to happen that led to reactions against it. Pope Innocent XI actively campaigned against nepotism, only accepted the papacy on condition that he could get rid of it, and then tried -- and failed -- three times to end it. It was finally done away with in 1692 by Pope Innocent XII.

Now nepotism didn't eliminate favouritism, it just often countered it. And fortunately Innocent XII and the popes immediately after him were intelligent enough to see that you could not replace nepotism with the arbitrariness of favouritism, so a mode of governance eventually got put together to counter the latter. There's no standard name for it; it is very bureaucracy-focused, so we could call it proceduralism, or maybe careerism. There had been career bureaucrats in the hierarchy for a very long time before that, so it could build on what was already there. I've no doubt it seemed a godsend in comparison with the worst excesses of nepotism: instead of family politics, pre-established procedures; instead of arbitrarily chosen favourites, people chosen because of their experience. Obviously favourites still existed, but they were held in check by the impersonal power of the bureaucracy itself. Two problems became obvious. The first, which is perhaps not particularly important from the perspective of avoiding corruption, was that it was seen as bureaucracy is always seen, and sometimes justifiedly: red tape and pointless procedures and policies that are there to preserve the bureaucracy rather than accomplish anything important. The second, and more serious problem, was that it does not seem to be sustainable. It was a bit of a lottery whether family members could be favourites. But favourites can quite easily be picked among a large group of career ecclesial bureaucrats -- and they can capture the bureaucracy. And then how do you get out of it? When senior bureaucrats in a highly bureaucratic system are favourites, it can get even worse than when the Cardinal-Nephew is cardinale padrone.

All of this, of course, is quite crude. But I think if we look at Church politics, we are indeed dealing with the results of a favouritist system. I think there were several steps that resulted in this. It used to be the case that there were always powerful cardinals whose power was not wholly dependent on the Pope; the Pope needed cardinals from France or Austria, say, just for political reasons, and they needed to be people with political connections in France and Austria, and their usefulness in this way was also part of their power. There are obvious problems -- it inevitably means that secular politics is meddling with ecclesial politics. In a very proceduralist system, this not necessarily fatal; Cardinals can have their own agendas as much as they please but they still have to fulfill their roles in the bureaucratic machine. Since we have excellent reason not to want secular governments to meddle in Church government, however, there was increasing reaction against this. But as we have solved that problem, the cost has been that Cardinals have become more and more creatures of the Popes. It didn't happen overnight, because there is a lot of inertia in Church politics. But more and more the choice of Cardinals has been completely arbitrary, and the whole thing starts looking less proceduralist and more like just a really complicated favouritist system.

If we take this as our hypothesis, a lot of Church politics for the past hundred years makes sense. Pius XII was arguably as strong a pope as he was because he was pope during a transition period, in which proceduralism was still the background norm but favouritism allowed him to bypass proceduralist roadblocks when he wanted to do so. His curia was definitely filled with favourites; but they were favourites who still had to play by some of the proceduralist rules. I suspect this is why poor Cardinal Ottaviani became so hated despite the fact that his career was so unexceptionable: he was a die-hard proceduralist and was consistently in the way of Church bureaucrats who wanted to be able to break out of the proceduralist rules and rule their little curial fiefdoms as they pleased. Paul VI and Benedict XVI were exceptionally weak popes because they inherited from prior popes an entire thriving system of favourites that they could not easily revise, which they also had personal incentive not to revise -- they had both been favourites themselves and both wanted to identify themselves with the prior regime rather than make a sharp break from it. Benedict XVI seems in particular to have had the odd idea that he had a special moral obligation not to cause unrest in the Curia, with the inevitable result that he had almost no effective authority.

Pope Francis is a different story; he was not a favourite in the court of St. John Paul II. But John Paul II seems to have had the idea that he needed to be evenhanded as a rule; when he really wanted something done, he'd work through favourites, but mostly he just tried to make sure that things were balanced. This meant that the workings of the favouritist system were often not as obvious as they might otherwise have been, and also meant that non-favourites had a lot of room for making alliances, and thus it was possible for a non-favourite to become Pope without some obvious traumatic crisis to force it. But Pope Francis is the most explicitly anti-proceduralist pope in a very long time; he thinks that things should be done as much as possible through personal connections, and doesn't like purely impersonal modes of governance. And given that the system was already favouritist to begin with, it inevitably becomes more obviously so. It's gasoline to the flame. None of Francis's reforms have even remotely reined in the favouritist tendencies of the system; several of them have clearly aggravated it. And we have all the room for corruption that a favouritist system allows. To be sure, favouritism is not automatically corruption; but corrupt favouritism is very, very hard to reform.

And this is where we seem to be: for the past half-century, we've had a lot of people who could get away with almost anything as long as they made the right symbolic procedural gestures, and now that people really want something done about it, there is no way to force them even to make the gestures. Nepotism is not coming back (we don't have the family-focused societies it requires), and a bunch of favourites are not going to accept merely procedural constraints on their fiefdom-omnipotence.

It's difficult to see any route that does not drag us through a century at least of highly erratic policy and continuing corruption. Favouritism is with us always, but how do you get something to check it if the favourites can block any restriction of their power? I keep thinking about this, over and over again, and I can't see any reform except one that would actually address the problem, and I cannot see any path by which it could come about. The reform is breaking the power of the Cardinals. I don't know that the College of Cardinals needs to be dissolved, but if there were some explicit check and balance to them that is filled by something other than purely arbitrary choice (my own thought is a Council of Patriarchs and Major Archbishops), maybe, maybe, maybe, we could avoid the danger of a self-perpetuating oligarchy of favourites. But maybe not. And in any case, how could any such thing be put into place? Perhaps we peasant-farmers are just stuck with the Ancien RĂ©gime until some terrible crisis comes and it all falls down.

Poem a Day XVIII

Gray Day

The sky is gray; the clouds
are sorrowful and proud, with rain
that weeps, a sign of pain
of lovers lost and slain; the air
is throb of heart laid bare;
the world is bent with care; and yet--
though all is shower-wet,
it still is hard to fret or sigh
when rain brings flowers nigh.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Evening Note for Tuesday, September 25

Thought for the Evening: 'Classical Theism'

'Classical theism' is a term invented by the process philosopher Charles Hartshorne to describe that in opposition of which his 'neoclassical' or 'dipolar' theism was developed. It essentially refers to positions that take God to be simple and immutable, although in Omnipotence and Other Mistakes he gives a more extended characterization of it as involving six elements:

(1) God is perfect/absolute.
(2) God is omnipotent in the sense that every other thing depends on Him.
(3) God is omniscient in the sense that He has eternal foreknowledge.
(4) God is immutable and impassible.
(5) Human beings are subjectively immortal.
(6) Infallible revelation is possible.

Regardless of whether one takes it in the narrower or the more extended sense, 'classical theism' necessarily covers a family of related positions, not a single position. And while it encompasses a significant bulk of historical Jewish, Muslim, and Christian theological views, it's worth noting that it does not cover all of them. Likewise, although Hartshorne (rightly) thinks that these positions tend to be attractive to Platonists and Aristotelians, one may legitimately be either Platonist or Aristotelian without being paradigmatically a classical theist -- arguably, for instance, a lot of Aristotelians historically don't strictly accept (3) in the above list in the sense that Hartshorne means. The theological motivation for being a classical theist is the doctrine of creation; if God creates ex nihilo, it is fairly easy to prove that something like (1)-(4) must be true. It's certainly the case that, while it's not mentioned in the above lists, Hartshorne's own view is inconsistent with the doctrine. Precisely one of the principles of process philosophy is that God and World are necessarily complementary; you can't have one without the other. But that is precisely what the doctrine of creation ex nihilo denies.

The preliminary argument for creation ex nihilo is nicely summed up by the great Saadia Gaon in the ninth century: as the world is finite, composite, mutable, and temporal, there is nothing that we can find in it that could possibly give us reason to think it eternal, so it must be created; but nothing can create itself; therefore there must be something uncreated that creates the world, and to be uncreated it must be infinite, noncomposite (simple), immutable, and eternal. I say 'preliminary' because one can throw up any number of arbitrary suppositions to complicate the argument, and because it's not just a matter of a positive philosophical case but involves a negative case, as well, refuting opposing positions, and a purely theological one as well. But the summation of Saadia makes clear the link between creation ex nihilo and what Hartshorne calls 'classical theism'.

Ages ago, when I was an undergraduate and first started arguing these matters with people, the fashionable view in many theological circles was still that God was passible -- that He could suffer, and not in a metaphorical sense. I spent uncountable hours on mailing lists and the like slowly tearing apart arguments that if God were immutable, He could not create, that if God were impassible, He could not love, that if God were not temporal, He could not interact with temporal creation. Refuting the same arguments over and over and over again. Endless quantities of my life that cannot be restored. But even then there was already a reaction brewing, and now, outside of a few places (there are always a few to maintain the reputation of theologians as those people than whom no more stubborn can be thought), it's fairly rare for people to argue directly for divine passibility, in the sense of arguing that divine passibility is some essential precondition for theology. In philosophy, you no longer find many people who will argue for it at all. And while you still occasionally get people raising the same old conundrums about immutability and eternity, they are fewer and fewer.

Ironically, I think Hartshorne is partly responsible for it all. He sometimes called his view 'neoclassical' because, despite thinking that it made some significant mistakes, he actually had a fair amount of respect for the classical theism he was opposing, and thought that some of it needed to be given a clear exposition so that it could be reclaimed in a 'neoclassical' analogue. (Thus, for instance, the thing he is most famous for is making Anselm's argument in the Proslogion a major philosophical topic and no longer something that would be brought up to be dismissed without much analysis.) It was slow going, but he was a cause in making it more acceptable to take the older arguments seriously. And he also took the opposing mutabilist, passibilist view and made it something precise rather than just vague claims about love requiring the ability to suffer. For the first time 'classical theists' had something to argue against, not just a feeling or a bit of question-begging. (In part, he made this possible not just by himself, but by giving other talented process theists, like the Whiteheadian Lewis Ford, a richer set of materials to work with.) He wasn't the only factor, by any means, but I think it can be argued quite directly that he was a contributor.

In any case, because people in analytic philosophy of religion occasionally read Hartshorne, the term 'classical theism' passed from him to them, and became quite common somewhere around the late eighties or early nineties. I think a potential problem with it is that, as I noted above, it's actually a diverse family of theistic views, not a single position, and I think this is sometimes getting lost in discussions today. Perhaps someday it will have to be shed in favor of something less vague. Until then, it's a handy enough term.

Various Links of Interest

* Skholiast interviews R. Kevin Hill on a wide range of topics concerned with Nietzsche.

* Rawad El Skaf, What notion of possibility should we use in assessing scientific thought experiments?

* Adrian Currie and Arnon Levy, Why Experiments Matter

* DarwinCatholic, Scandal and Truth

* Tommy Wiseau as the Joker in The Dark Knight:

It's surprisingly good; his highly erratic acting kinda works here.

* Christopher Jacobs, The Cajun Navy Heads to Help with Hurricane Florence

* Chicken Fried Bacon

Currently Reading

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Philosophical Writings
Giambattista Vico, Keys to the New Science
Michael G. Sirilla, The Ideal Bishop: Aquinas's Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles
Lloyd Humberstone, Philosophical Applications of Modal Logic
Jules Verne, In Search of the Castaways

Music on My Mind

Al Matthews, "Fool". Al Mathews recently died. Matthews is best known for his role as Sergeant Al Apone in Aliens, which has often been considered one of the great movie portrayals of a US Marine (Matthews himself had been one, and put a lot of working into making sure the characters were handled in a way that made them believable as Marines). But the multitalented man did quite a few other things. Above is what he would be best known for if he weren't known for his role in Aliens.

Poem a Day XVII


The thunder is thick in the air;
the static leaps up through the hair;
the flame of the gods pierces darkest night,
sheds light through the park;
the tears are falling from the byssal sky,
with sigh like recalled kiss
on the breezes that mourn their loss
where leaves of trees in anguish toss.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Poem a Day XVI


Like to sun,
fire-throwing, pure,
is mind,
light-pouring and encompassing all,
in the brilliance that it casts
and the world on which it falls;
like to water,
ever-pouring rush,
like to air,
always restless in its roam,
like to silk in its shimmer,
supplely falling in its drape,
like to wide country vista,
like to roads,
like to home,
like to cars in their speeding,
their direction and their roar,
like to lamps on the streetposts
casting circles on the street,
like to one single word,
like to speeches by the ton,
like to bird,
quick on wing,
quick to soar,
swift and fleet,
like to mountains made of granite
in endurance and in might,
like to pillows soft and gentle,
consolation for the day,
like to apples, peaches, grapes,
in the sweetness of their taste,
like to hello and farewell
as you journey on your way,
so is mind,
hard and soft,
fast, slow,
thick, clean,
subtle in its movement,
unchanging and yet moved,
so swift it is already,
always somewhere else,
bright, dark, far, near,
unproven and yet proved,
here, there,
this, that,
I, other, and the same,
easy-found, yet hard to find,
like every object in its likeness--
but mostly like to mind.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Law of Their Nature

Mankind is a system of creatures, that continually need one another's assistance, without which they could not long subsist. It is therefore necessary, that everyone, according to his capacity and station, should contribute his part towards the good and preservation of the whole, and avoid whatever may be detrimental to it. For this end they are made capable of acquiring social or benevolent affections, (probably have the seeds of them implanted in their nature) with a moral sense or conscience, that approves of virtuous actions, and disapproves the contrary. This plainly shows them, that virtue is the law of their nature, and that it must be their duty to observe it, from whence arises moral obligation, tho' the sanctions of that law are unknown; for the consideration of what the event of an action may be to the agent, alters not at all the rule of his duty, which is fixed in the nature of things.

Catharine Trotter Cockburn, "Remarks upon some Writers in the Controversy concerning the Foundation of Moral Virtue and Moral Obligation", Philosophical Writings, Sheridan, ed. Broadview (Peterborough, ON: 2006) p. 114.