Saturday, October 27, 2018

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein


Opening Passage:

To Mrs. Saville, England.

St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—.

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday, and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.

Summary: It is lonely in the heights of greatness. The human mind and will can achieve sublime things, and, being human, wishes to share it with a mind and will that can truly appreciate the sublimity, that can answer back with its own sublimities. But in sublime things, as the old proverb goes, 'My friend, there is no such thing as a friend'.

We open the book with Walton, writing to his sister Margaret. Walton has set out to explore the arctic regions and find the North Pole. It is a high and sublime deed, and a very lonely one. He writes to his sister of his loneliness, and the ache of having no one with whom he might really share any success he might have: "I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate in my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection." But into his life falls Victor Frankenstein, and this, at last seems to be the friend for whom Walton has wished. For Victor Frankenstein has already achieved a high and sublime deed, the creation of rational life. It is an achievement far beyond what most people can even imagine doing. And yet Frankenstein, too, is utterly alone. Horrified by the thing he created, he was unable to share it with his closest friends, Elizabeth Lavenza and Henry Cherval; and both of them were murdered by the creature.

The creature, too, has a mind capable of high and sublime things; he shows a genuine genius and a capacity for learning that runs far beyond what most people could possibly have. But he is also utterly alone. He was born a new thing in the world, a pinnacle of human achievement, but, grotesque to the eye, his own creator repudiated him. Uncared for, he wandered, and realized that everyone would treat him has his creator did. He demands that Frankenstein make him a companion who could understand him. Frankenstein agrees, but, in terror at the thought of what such another monster could do in the world, he backs out on his promise, destroying the companion before he has brought it to life. So close, so close to having a friend, to ending that pain of loneliness, and Victor Frankenstein destroyed it right in front of him. All the two have left between each other is revenge, and the absolute guarantee that one of them must die.

Thus by the end, everyone has been cheated of all possibility of a friend. Such is the splendor of the heights.

Much of this gets pushed into the background by the interest of the main characters. Walton himself comes across almost as a nonentity; in the abstract, he's an interesting character, but in the actual course of the story he can't compete with the high tragedy and pain of the creature or the infinite melodrama of Frankenstein. He is also, perhaps not unrelatedly, the character who is least concerned with himself. Frankenstein himself is immensely self-absorbed -- not a bad man, but he is really ally about himself. When he vows revenge on the creature, one of the sacred things he swears by is his own grief; he treats all of his actions as being of world-historical significance; the creature calls him, correctly, I think, "[g]enerous and self-devoted being"; Walton says of him, impressed, that he "seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall." This is, indeed, part of what other characters find so magnetic about Frankenstein: he is very well aware of his own importance and the assessment spreads by a sort of sympathetic contagion.

Most mind-bogglingly of all is that Victor Frankenstein, who has violated practically every obligation he has undertaken, is quite totally convinced that he is justified. "During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable." Did you not create a rational being, Victor? Yes, in a fit of "enthusiastic madness". Were you not bound to care for such a creature, Victor? Yes, but there was a higher obligation, to the beings of his own species, so I destroyed the companion I was supposed to make for him; and he acted with malignant selfishness.

But, of course, it is impossible not to think that the creature has had the worst of the exchange. Yes, he did deliberately murder innocent people, but one can sympathize under the circumstances. And it would all have been prevented if Frankenstein had fulfilled his obligation to care for the life he had made. For that matter, further deaths after the first would likely have been prevented if Frankenstein had spoken up at the trial of Justine; he excuses himself on the grounds that they would have thought him a madman, but when he finally talks to a magistrate later (his own skin on the line), he actually gets a remarkably sympathetic hearing. And, of course, it is possible it could all have been brought to an end again if Frankenstein had not broken his promise to his creature by destroying the companion, because there is nothing at all that sparks vengeance as having your hope dangled in front of you and then deliberately ripped up so that it will never be fulfilled.

In addition to reading the book, I also listened to two radio versions of the story, one from the classic show Suspense, and the other from The Witch's Tale. Unsurprisingly, they both focus on the making of the monster. Both put some emphasis on the trespassing-human-bounds angle -- an aspect that you can find, here and there in the book, but that does not actually play a major role in the story. The Suspense version particularly suggests that Frankenstein's problem was a lack of religious humility. Of the two, the Suspense is much less faithful, being closer in structure to what the story becomes on stage or screen. The Witch's Tale, on the other hand, makes a truly valiant attempt to distill as much of the sprawling story as possible into about twenty minutes -- an impossible task, but it's a fairly impressive attempt. Plus, I really like the sheer, savage rage of the creature in it.

Favorite Passage:

“Oh, it is not thus—not thus,” interrupted the being. “Yet such must be the impression conveyed to you by what appears to be the purport of my actions. Yet I seek not a fellow feeling in my misery. No sympathy may I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to be participated. But now that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair, in what should I seek for sympathy? I am content to suffer alone while my sufferings shall endure; when I die, I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment. Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone...."

Recommendation: Recommended.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dashed Off XXV

Evil being a privation, for any argument from evil one should look at what it implies about good.

sins that rust, sins that burn

the task of the statesman (the happy life of the citizens):
(1) opibus firma: strength for their safety.
(2) copiis locuples: abundance for their goods.
(3) gloria amplia: fame for their self-worth.
(4) virtute honesta: good for their virtue.
[Cicero, quoting Scipio, Ep. 8.11 to Atticus]

Imagination is hampered by lack of logical analysis. It is logical analysis that shows that what seemed necessary was not, that this is indeed possible given that.

The human heart needs more than safety and pleasure; give human beings nothing but safety and pleasure and they begin to rot.

Centralization of power facilitates dishonest government.

If you keep boring people, they will inevitably start doing shocking things.

The insistence on wheat & wine & oil for the sacraments is linked to the historical character of the Incarnation.

Even the Church cannot fight every evil equally intensely all the time.

circumcision as the symbolic acceptance of natural evil for the sake of God

Claims of Christ suggesting that He is God:
Either they are (1) later legend or (2) fact.
If (2), they are either (2.1) misunderstood metaphor or (2.2) correctly understood.
If (2.2), they are either (2.2.1) false or (2.2.2) true.
If (2.2.1), Christ is either ( a liar or ( a lunatic.

The Church's claim that Christ is God:
Either the Church is (1) right or (2) it is deceived.
If (2), it was deceived either (2.1) by Christ or (2.2) by disciples of Christ.
If (2.2), those disciples were either (2.2.1) the Apostles or (2.2.2) the Fathers.

holy devotion : human person :: glory : God

In theology, the intellect must hold itself to an ascetic discipline.

Power, wisdom, and goodness are the three things that form hierarchies, and that evoke a sense of deference in the human mind.

The natural religious tendency of centralized liberal democracy, in the European sense, seems to be to somewhere between agnostic unitarianism and ietsism, just as the natural religious tendency of Greek democracy was to syncretic polytheism, and the tendency of the rougher American-style republican democracy is to something like moralistic deism.

All substantive credibility depends on some kind of temperance or self-restraint.

Political lying leads to political violence in the long run.

Liberalism is the form of government that tries to create freedom by artificial method.

A people without a strong sense of loyalty slip into authoritarianism, because loyalties create limits to the use and exercise of power. (It does not follow that loyalty on its own is universally adequate to prevent every kind of authoritarianism.) The shifting of loyalties on the grounds of preference and convenience is exactly one of the things that most easily leads to authoritarianism. Who has no stable loyalties is easily manipulated.

purgatorium = emendetorium

Saints are signs, exemplates, and paths oriented to the Word Incarnate.

"For it must be a strange sort of rational creature that can live in such a beautiful fabric was we inhabit, without thinking how it came here, and who was the maker of the universe." Mary Astell

No one talks up freedom and rights more than usurping tyrants.

what signs express vs what signs evince

layers of Christian devotion
(1) Gift of Piety
(2) Theological Virtue of Faith
(3) Infused Virtue of Religion
(4) Acquired Virtue of Religion

[the Gift] -- [what it perfects]
Understanding -- speculative intellect in discovery of truth
Wisdom -- speculative intellect in judgment
Counsel -- practical intellect in discovery of truth
Knowledge -- practical intellect in judgment
Piety -- will in itself
Fortitude -- will with respect to irascible appetite
Fear -- will with respect to concupiscible appetite

A nation is a guise under which people seek and preserve common good.

Vico's criticisms of Hobbes can be summarized as: human societies must grow, not be mechanically constructed; human society's rise is marked by poetry, not by calculation.

Although they are not always stated in this way, design arguments typically are two-stage: design vs chance (the phenomena are designed) and unified design (common cause) vs separate causes (there is a designing agent rather than just a design-converging complex of factors). A reason this is not always made clear is the modern muddle about final causes.

Sometimes we classify to know the thing, and sometimes we classify to regiment our thought about it.

"Because of the indefinite nature of the human mind, wherever it is lost in ignorance, man makes himself the measure of all things." Vico

design // obligation

Extensive conquest requires previously existing political structures that are capable of being coopted and then built upon.

Moralism sees no sublimity.

Confirmation (of a theory, etc.) is a transition from one kind of modal operator to another.

Our views on punishment are often more about stories we want to tell about ourselves than about justice.

HoP & the logistics of rational discourse

The relation between exemplar and exemplate is easier to grasp than the relation between universal and instance; which is why the former is more common across many cultures and why certain views -- like empiricism, intelligent design theory, etc. -- have consistent imaginative purchase.

conservation laws and the universe as a necessary being (in the Third Way sense)

In online as well as offline arguments, feeling entitled to victory is a harbinger of aggressive nastiness if victory is denied.

Peter as the chorypaeus of the choir (Chrysostom)

Sometimes when people speak of tradition they mean little more than a sense of propriety.

One reason for giving rational accounts is to prevent our meanings from drifting out from under us, by tying them in particular ways to other words and to real things.

the logic of implication as the logic of enthymeme
-- the paradoxes of implication as arising from issues with enthymemes
-- modal division of enthymemes: strict [ □(a->b) ], material [ (a->b) ], and suppositional [ ◇(a->b) ].

Syllogism establishes union, enthymeme presupposes it.

inferential division of enthymemes: rational (therefore), conditional (if), causal (because)

Null hypotheses are formed by dichotomizing, and face the same problems as using dichotomy to classify.

Law must be made present by promulgation and enforcement.

The endurance of rights in human society requires that there be memorial witnesses to them.

piacular guilt as a sign of sublimity

moral debt
(1) for good received: gratitude
(2) for bad received: vindication
(3) for unintentional bad done: piacular honor

Military strategy requires a genius for finding ways to change the rules.

NB Vico takes other words to arise from interjections, and pronouns to arise out of the sharing of ideas with others about things we can't name, or for which they don't understand the names.

"The threat prompting resentment, made fully explicit, is of license with impunity." Margaret Walker

Arendt's dictum: We cannot genuinely forgive what we cannot punish.

Court nobility, as such, arises when functional roles maintained by families become more titular than functional, either by the function becoming otiose, or by a shift to a new function without a shift of name in order to maintain continuity in familial honor.

"The basic problem of every former colony -- the problem of intellectual servitude, of impoverished tradition, of subaltern spirituality, of inauthentic civilization, of obligatory and shameful imitation -- has been resolved for me with supreme simplicity: Catholicism is my native land." Nicolas Gomez Davila

(1) pleasant: humor
(2) unpleasant: bitter irony?
(1) pleasant: surprise
(2) unpleasant: shock

We define substances not by enumerating sensible ideas but by determining what is required for them to act as they do.

It is remarkable how many people fail to understand that finger-wagging does not encourage mercy or kindness in general.

Rhetorical cascades have an ideal component and a material component, and it is the combination that makes the cascade.

Full consent is only possible to the moral good, for reasons given in Plato's Gorgias.

"The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation." Tolkien

We clearly can be moved by anticipated plights and by probable but not certain plights; thus we can be moved by imagined plights and by fictional plights.

All belief is inside-a-story belief.

Fictions influence emotions by evoking moods, which are then concentrated.

NB that Vico takes our sense of civil beauty to be prior to our sense of natural beauty.

Complaining about the diaphonia of schools in philosophical inquiry is like complaining about the diversity of instruments in a symphony.

If abstract objects exist, they act, for what actually is, acts as it is. If abstract objects are known to exist, they act, for things are known, directly or indirectly, as they act.

A problem with too many modern political theories is that they attempt to pass themselves off as healthy simply on the grounds that they are not fast-acting poisons.

A true intellectual life is an entire economy: for some truths we hunt, for some we trap, for some we fish, for some we sow.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Music on My Mind

Árstíðir, "Heyr Himna Smiður", an Icelandic hymn sung impromptu in a train station. A more standard version by another group:

Háskólakórinn, "Heyr Himna Smiður".

Heyr Himna Smiður means something like, "Hail, Smith of the Heavens".

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Boil Water Days

Because of recent serious flooding here in Central Texas, Austin is now on its third day of a Boil Water Notice (the first it has ever had). So far there has been no problems with bacteria or anything like that, but the water treatment plants are falling behind on supplying treated water due to high turbidity in the Colorado River, so we are also on a slight water conservation regime. It's interesting. Since floodgates are still open and we are still getting rain, estimates for how long this will last are anywhere from a few more days to two weeks. So far I haven't been affected myself much at all (I always have on hand an emergency supply of drinking water for several days, and in the kitchen almost the only thing I regularly use water for anyway is tea), but it's interesting how much it changes things broader afield -- a lot of little things, like there being no soda fountains, and restaurants having to change their menus. Bottled water has been vanishing from the shelf almost as soon as it is put there; breweries, which have to boil large amounts of water for a long time anyway, have been cutting back on brewing (to conserve water) and devoting part of their time to boil water specifically to give to those who need it, including restaurants and coffee shops.

Most of civilization, its infrastructure and component parts, is in the background of our lives; we only really see it when it is put to the test.

UPDATE (October 28): The Boil Water Notice has been lifted.

Strange and Full of Doubt and Fear

To Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

1. Mine eyes were dim with tears unshed;
Yes, I was firm—thus wert not thou;—
My baffled looks did fear yet dread
To meet thy looks—I could not know
How anxiously they sought to shine
With soothing pity upon mine.

2. To sit and curb the soul's mute rage
Which preys upon itself alone;
To curse the life which is the cage
Of fettered grief that dares not groan,
Hiding from many a careless eye
The scorned load of agony.

3. Whilst thou alone, then not regarded,
The … thou alone should be,
To spend years thus, and be rewarded,
As thou, sweet love, requited me
When none were near—Oh! I did wake
From torture for that moment's sake.

4. Upon my heart thy accents sweet
Of peace and pity fell like dew
On flowers half dead;—thy lips did meet
Mine tremblingly; thy dark eyes threw
Their soft persuasion on my brain,
Charming away its dream of pain.

5. We are not happy, sweet! our state
Is strange and full of doubt and fear;
More need of words that ills abate;—
Reserve or censure come not near
Our sacred friendship, lest there be
No solace left for thee and me.

6. Gentle and good and mild thou art,
Nor can I live if thou appear
Aught but thyself, or turn thine heart
Away from me, or stoop to wear
The mask of scorn, although it be
To hide the love thou feel'st for me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Earth Transcended Yields the Stars

Today is the feast of St. Severinus Boethius, killed in 524 by King Theodoric the Great. From his short treatise, De Fide Catholica:

Christ, then, was slain; He lay three days and three nights in the tomb; He rose again from the dead as He had predetermined with His Father before the foundation of the world; He ascended into heaven whence we know that He was never absent, because He is Son of God, in order that as Son of God He might raise together with Him to the heavenly habitation man whose flesh He had assumed, whom the devil had hindered from ascending to the places on high. Therefore He bestowed on His disciples the form of baptizing, the saving truth of the teaching, and the mighty power of miracles, and bade them go throughout the whole world to give it life, in order that the message of salvation might be preached no longer in one nation only but among all the dwellers upon earth. And because the human race was wounded by the weapon of eternal punishment by reason of the nature which they had inherited from the first transgressor and could not win a full meed of salvation because they had lost it in its first parent, God instituted certain health-giving sacraments to teach the difference between what grace bestowed and human nature deserved, nature simply subjecting to punishment, but grace, which is won by no merit, since it would not be grace if it were due to merit, conferring all that belongs to salvation.

From his most famous work, the Consolation of Philosophy:

...we have shown that happiness is the Good itself; the Good is the very thing for the sake of which all actions are undertaken; therefore it is the Good itself that has been placed before human actions as if it were their common reward. And yet, this reward cannot be separated from good people--for one would nto rightly be called good any longer if one lacked the Good--and for this reason its proper rewards to not abandon righteous conduct. Therefore, no matter how brutal evil people may be, the crown shall never fall from the head of the wise man and shall never wither; nor shall another person's unrighteousness pluck from the souls of the righteous the distinctions that are theirs alone....

...Since true happiness is the Good itself, it is clear that all good people, by the very fact that they are good, become truly happy. But it is agreed that those who are truly happy are gods. Therefore, this is the reward of good people, which no future day can grind down, which no other man's power can humble, which no other man's unrighteousness can stain--to become gods.
[Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, Relihan, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis: 2001) pp. 100-101.]

0372 - Pavia - S. Pietro - Cripta - Tomba Boezio - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, Oct 17 2009

Monday, October 22, 2018

Postures of Inquiry vs. Positions

There's an interesting ambiguity, at least as it is often used, that I've always find interesting in the English phrase 'questioning (something)': an ambiguity between asking questions of or about something and putting it into question. They are two different things; for instance, you can do the former without ever doubting what you are asking questions about, but the latter precisely means to put something in doubt. This is an ambiguity between a posture of inquiry -- in this case, asking questions -- and a position -- in this case, that whatever is talked about is questionable. People in casual conversation will often conflate the two, despite the fact that they are very different.

A more sophisticated version of this often occurs with philosophical skepticism. Many common arguments for skepticism quite clearly collapse the distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position. If you look at Pyrrhonism, for instance, as we find in the Ten Modes and the Five Modes, they are consistingly cases of a specific posture of inquiry -- finding balancing appearances or arguments -- and treating it as if it were in contrast to Dogmatism. But insofar as they are things you can do in investigation, they are all things a Dogmatist can do, without any suspension of judgment, while still being a Dogmatist. To be sure, they are all things that you can do suspending judgment, and it is entirely reasonable to argue that suspending judgment is more appropriate; but it has to be argued, not assumed, because the posture of inquiry in which we collect various kinds of equipollent appearances or arguments is not the position we take in suspending judgment because of them. A Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the appearance of a tower being round and a tower being square while believing it to be square in floorplan; he can look into exactly the same appearances as a Pyrrhonist without ceasing to be a Dogmatist about it. Nor does moving to arguments change anything. The Dogmatist can perfectly well collect the arguments 'The tower seems round [at a distance], so it is round' and the 'The tower seems square [up close], so it is square'. He can't accept them both simultaneously and in the same way in the same context, to be sure, but the Pyrrhonist doesn't accept either of the arguments at all. As a posture of inquiry, you can entertain both arguments regardless of whether you have a definite belief or are suspending judgment. But some of the plausibility of Pyrrhonism comes from a convenient failure to recognize that the Dogmatist can handle appearances and arguments in the way a Pyrrhonist does while not going on to the further step of suspending judgment.

Ironically, it is the Pyrrhonists who have come closest to recognizing this distinction between a posture of inquiry and a position, because they have at least since Sextus Empiricus used something like such a distinction as part of a defensive maneuver. (Arne Naess has perhaps some of the clearest discussion of this.) Thinking of themselves as 'skeptics' or 'zetetics' -- i.e., examiners or seekers -- is precisely taking up a posture of inquiry. Thus you can deny that you are just another Dogmatist by saying that you are really an Inquirer -- you'd be interested in finding the truth, if you could, but you are still in the process of looking for it, and have not, it seems to you, found it. But nothing about this in itself is inconsistent with Dogmatism; Dogmatists too may be Inquirers -- they can be interested in finding the truth, if they can, and can still be in the process of looking for it, but have, it seems to them, found part of it. The Skeptics are right that you can take this as a posture of inquiry rather than as a position; but qua posture of inquiry it is not inconsistent with any Dogmatist position at all. I mean, we can take a posture of inquiry, entirely from curiosity, about something we regard as a per impossibile hypothetical. Merely inquiring a certain way does not, itself and on its own, rule out any position whatsoever.

To be sure, Pyrrhonists, ever cautious, have tended to treat the suspension of judgment as coming on one when dealing with equipollence of arguments, etc., and so they can perfectly well say that there is no rigorous link, but only something that seems at times to be natural. But if they answered in this way, they seem only to be describing the history of their minds engaged in the error of conflating distinct things. And the Dogmatist in the face of this is free to accept all the arguments of the Skeptic as pertaining to inquiry, without making the assumption that this automatically requires accepting the result of suspending judgment.

There are other cases in which posture of inquiry is confused with position. What I've previously called the -ism mistake seems to be a particular version of the same confusion -- people thinking that the posture of inquiry of examining consequences is the position that is consequentialism, or people thinking that the posture of inquiry of trying to explain natural effects by natural causes is the position that is naturalism. As with the above, you could possibly get from one to the other by arguing with the help of additional assumptions, but you can't in fact directly get from one to the other, however much people may reason as if you could.

Radio Greats: The Devil's Bible (Night Beat)

Night Beat, which aired from 1950 to 1952, is one of the gems of the drama genre from the Golden Age of Radio. It features Randy Stone (played in an excellent no-nonsense manner by Frank Lovejoy), a reporter for the Chicago Star who works, of course, the night beat -- trying to get that last up-to-the-moment notable scoop before the presses start rolling for the morning edition. It's a good format for radio drama, because it allows each episode to have a definite, familiar structure while also allowing you any content that might end up in the news. It's also an easier genre than detective fiction, because there's less pressure to try to make every story clever. Randy Stone does often solve a crime, sometimes cleverly, but when he does so, it's primarily because he's that dogged reporter who doesn't stop digging until he actually has the story.

Because of all this, the stories tend to be diverse and interesting, ranging from quirky to creepy to puzzling to humorous. One of the quirkier ones that is also good for leading up to Halloween is "The Devil's Bible". Randy Stone is looking into a possible story when he meets Dante Alighieri. A fourteenth-century poet, a blasphemous Bible coveted by book collectors, a murder, a cold-hearted woman, and nothing is quite what it seems.

You can listen to "The Devil's Bible" at the Internet Archive (#29 in the list).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Every Foam-White Stream that Twinkling Flows

by Madison Cawein

The deep seclusion of this forest path,—
O'er which the green boughs weave a canopy,
Along which bluet and anemone
Spread a dim carpet; where the twilight hath
Her dark abode; and, sweet as aftermath,
Wood-fragrance breathes,—has so enchanted me,
That yonder blossoming bramble seems to be
Some sylvan resting, rosy from her bath:
Has so enspelled me with tradition's dreams,
That every foam-white stream that twinkling flows,
And every bird that flutters wings of tan,
Or warbles hidden, to my fancy seems
A Naiad dancing to a Faun who blows
Wild woodland music on the pipes of Pan.