Saturday, March 30, 2019

Jules Verne, Keraban the Inflexible; The Steam House


Opening Passages: From Keraban the Inflexible:

At six o'clock on the evening of the 16th of August, in a certain year which need not be particularly specified, the quay of Top-Hané in Constantinople, usually so crowded and full of life and bustle, was silent — almost deserted. The view from this place over the Bosphorus was certainly a very charming one, but life was wanting to give it its full effect. Very few strangers were visible that time, and they were hurrying on their way to Pera. The narrow, dirty, and dog-infested streets which led to what may be termed the European quarters, were almost free from the presence of the representatives of Western civilization. Pera is more especially affected as a residence by the Franks, whose white stone mansions contrast vividly with the dark cypress groves upon the hill.

From The Steam House:

Reward of two thousand pounds will be paid to any one who will deliver up, dead or alive, one of the prime movers of the Sepoy revolt, at present known to be in the Bombay presidency, the Nabob Dandou Pant, commonly called

Such was the fragmentary notice read by the inhabitants of Aurungabad, on the evening of the 6th of March, 1867. A copy of the placard had been recently affixed to the wall of a lonely and ruined bungalow on the banks of the Doudhma, and already the corner of the paper bearing the second name — a name execrated by some, secretly admired by others — was gone.

Summary: The Steam House occurs in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny, and the British and the Indians are mired in a cycle of ever-increasing violence and retaliation, as both sides struggle to deal with atrocities, both their own and those on the other side. The most significant of these for this tale is the Cawnpore Massacre, in which Nana Sahib had an unusually impressive victory against the British, but one marked by ruthlessness, as many British died, and women and children were thrown into a well to die. Among these women and children was Laura Munro, the wife of Colonel Munro, who would be a significant contributor to the British response, which will lead to Nana Sahib going into hiding. Needless to say, Colonel Munro and Nana Sahib have a deep-seated hatred for each other, and both itch for the chance to get their revenge.

The Steam House arises in part as an attempt by Colonel Munro's friends to get him out of his shell. They hit on the idea of a tour of India; and Banks, the engineer, has the perfect way to take it, if Colonel Munro is willing to contribute to it. An Indian rajah had a plan for a steam-powered mechanical elephant that could draw a small train of palaces behind it. He had hired Banks to realize his dream, but died before Banks could solve all the engineering problems involved. However, they did get solved, so the friends will take their tour in two houses-on-wheels drawn by the amazing mechanical elephant. Going along with Munro and Banks will be Maucler (the French narrator), Captain Hood, and the servants -- Sergeant McNeil, Storr the engine-driver, Kâlouth the fire-man for the engine, Goûmi the Gurkha, Fox who is Captain Hood's valet, and Monsieur Parazard the black French chef, as well as two hunting dogs. The two houses drawn by the elephant are practically small palaces, so everybody is certainly going to be touring in style. They will see many of the sacred sites of India, starting out from Calcutta and heading to the Himalayas, but there are many other things that they will discover. Some of these scenes are very nicely done -- the descriptions of the tiger hunts, or of the herd of elephants that does not know what to make of their machine-elephant, or the wager with the prince that their mechanical elephant was stronger than three flesh-and-blood elephants combined. There is also the mystery of the madwoman traveling the countryside, known only by the populace as the Roving Flame.

But Munro was convinced to go on the tour for reasons of his own, due to the dark days of Cawnpore, and Nana Sahib is at large, building up a new rebellion, and has heard that Munro has left Calcutta. The two inevitably will collide. I think this is perhaps the weakest part of the book; the events are interesting, but it's almost as if we have two different stories that just happen to share a few episodes. All in all, though, it's a rousing tale, and remarkably even-handed -- Verne neither excuses the atrocities of either side nor looks away from them, although, of course, all of his information for both sides is at second-hand, so should be taken with a grain of salt.

Kéraban the Inflexible is a very different story; The Steam House is sensational and melodramatic, but Kéraban is a comic tale. Kéraban's obstinacy in refusing to pay the tiny strait-crossing tax of ten paras, leading him to take a journey around the entire Black Sea just to get the short distance across the Bosphorus is played for all the absurdity it is, as is Van Mitten's nonconfrontational compliance in the face of a much more assertive personality. But Kéraban's obstinacy does win out, and everybody worthy of a happy ending has one, including Kéraban himself, who succeeds, twice, in not paying the tax of ten paras, which is about 1/4 of a piastre, and manages to pull off this astounding triumph over the intrusions of government at a cost of a mere 802,000 piastres and all sorts of crazy adventures. Of course, he will also later for convenience buy the tax out from the government -- essentially pay the government everything they expect to make from the tax -- simply so he doesn't have to keep not paying it, and who knows how much that was, but that is Kéraban for you: you can't force him to do anything, but freely he might very well do anything.

Favorite Passages: From Keraban the Inflexible:

"Well, you see, I have crossed without paying," said Kéraban to the chief of the police. "Yes, without paying--at least only two thousand piastres for my place in the barrow and the eight hundred thousand expended in going round the Black Sea."

"I congratulate you with all my heart," replied the officer, who could only bow to this unparalleled obstinacy.

From The Steam House, it's hard to beat the first description of the Steam House itself:

At sunrise a strange and most remarkable equipage had been seen to issue from the suburbs of the Indian capital, attended by a dense crowd of people drawn by curiosity to watch its departure.

First, and apparently drawing the caravan, came a gigantic elephant. The monstrous animal, twenty feet in height, and thirty in length, advanced deliberately, steadily, and with a certain mystery of movement which struck the gazer with a thrill of awe. His trunk, curved like a cornucopia, was uplifted high in the air. His gilded tusks, projecting from behind the massive jaws, resembled a pair of huge scythes. On his back was a highly ornamented howdah, which looked like a tower surmounted, in Indian style, by a dome-shaped roof and furnished with lens-shaped glasses to serve for windows.

This elephant drew after him a train consisting of two enormous cars, or actual houses, moving bungalows in fact, each mounted on four wheels. The wheels, which, were prodigiously strong, were carved, or rather sculptured in every part. Their lowest portion only could be seen, as they moved inside a sort of case, like a paddle-box, which concealed the enormous locomotive apparatus. A flexible gangway connected the two carriages.

Recommendation: Both Recommended, if you can find them.


But beware of supposing this [the Chrism] to be plain ointment. For as the Bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, is mere bread no longer , but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no more simple ointment, nor (so to say) common, after invocation, but it is Christ's gift of grace, and, by the advent of the Holy Ghost, is made fit to impart His Divine Nature. Which ointment is symbolically applied to your forehead and your other senses ; and while your body is anointed with the visible ointment, your soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit.

[St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Lecture 3.]

Friday, March 29, 2019

Debate After Tragic Events

Alexandra Couto and Guy Kahane have a nice summary at "Practical Ethics" of their paper "Disaster and Debate". In it they argue that early debate after tragic events is permissible, contrary to what people often say. It's a good example, actually, of the value that summarizing philosophy papers can sometimes have; I think it's easier to see the overall force of their argument through the directness of the summary than in the sort of unavoidable ramble through different possibilities a journal article requires. Nonetheless, I think their argument fails, for a large number of reasons. Some of my reasons for thinking so depend on substantive positions that are perhaps controvertible, but some of them I think are at least partly structural, and I'll focus on the latter.

(1) Their argument against the cynical reading is poor. In the paper they spend a small amount of time discussing what they call the 'cynical reading' of the 'It's too soon' or 'Now is not the time' objection to debate after tragic events; I take it that 'cynical' here indicates not that the reading is cynical but that the objection is taken to be expressive of cynicism. The idea is that early debate after a tragedy is (at least likely) opportunistic and an active attempt to manipulate people.. As they rightly recognize, the issue is that calls for debate in the midst of a tragedy* strike many people as being in bad faith. It's not done (one might say) because you actually want a debate; it's done because you think the tragic landscape favors you so that your opponents can't debate you, or because you think people, seized by unusual emotions, can be stampeded in the direction you want them to go.

Couto and Kahane do not do justice to this understanding of the complaint at all. From what they say, it sounds very much like they are regarding it as simply an ad hominem. But while it could perhaps be used in such a way in some circumstances, the essential point is quite general: in politics there is a lot of bad faith, a lot of manipulative action. And there are two concerns here: one, you don't want major social actions to be taken largely because someone's manipulative, bad-faith scheme happened to succeed because people were distraught; and two, you don't really want to be seen as the sort of slimy political opportunist who seizes on people's distress in order to con them. Now, I've no doubt that sometimes when people make the 'It's too soon' complaint they are not doing it with saintly intentions but in order to imply that in fact the people who are raising points are slimy political opportunists. But the reason this works is that there is a genuine, and general, issue here: manipulative political opportunism is a genuine phenomenon, and it's bad enough for everyone that most people regard it as reasonable to take basic steps to avoid even the appearance of it.

The essential argument that Couto and Kahane give does not really address this point at all -- again, because they seem to read it as merely an ad hominem rather than as making a general point about the need for safeguards. Their primary argument in the paper is that the complaint is self-defeating:

The cynical reading, however, is self-defeating since the accusation of ‘unsavoury opportunism’ (Bruni) it makes against those who wish to engage in debate can easily be also directed against attempts to shut down debate, deflating any normative force it may have at first seemed to have. Worse, by so readily imputing false motives to others, this understanding of the complaint risks undermining political debate more generally since the imputation of bad faith is on the table, it can be easily enough applied across the board.

But this fails completely, for three reasons. First, this identifies no form of self-defeat at all. If I accuse you of being a liar, it's true that this is an accusation anyone could make about anyone -- there's nothing about any kind of accusation that prevents anyone from accusing anyone of anything. But this has no relevance to the question of whether lying is bad and something we should be avoiding; it doesn't 'deflate the normative force' of the claim that lying is bad and should be avoided, nor does it change the fact that you should perhaps not be doing what you are doing if there is reason to think that you are in fact lying. Likewise, the fact that anyone can be accused of bad faith doesn't change the fact that bad faith is bad and that you should be hesitant to do things that people can reasonably interpret as bad faith. Second, the response depends crucially on the assumption that there is an imputation of motive. (Hence my point about their reading it as an ad hominem.) But this is not in fact required: it is making a general point about the unsavoriness of seizing on tragedy to try to manipulate others into agreeing with you, and this is unaffected by any question of what motives are actually involved. To appear to be acting badly, even from good motive, in at least many circumstances requires the justification of necessity, and even then sometimes will require an honest apology for having had to do the sort of thing that often indicates a bad motive. Thus the question of imputing motive, while it might be relevant to particular cases, is not relevant to the point of the complaint.

Third, and I think most seriously, the argument quite clearly fails because it would make identification of bad faith useless in political situations, and this is a disastrous result. Debate after a tragic event is not the only situation in which people worry about political bad faith, but Couto and Kahane have given an argument that, if it were viable, could be used in every such case. Consider for instance the classical justification of civil disobedience in matters of civil rights. What justifies a citizen, qua citizen (and thus responsible for upholding the law and order in their society), engaging in active disobedience to the laws, rather than negotiating through instruments of law? The usual answer given is that of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail: It is indeed better to negotiate than to disobey laws, but sometimes the people you're negotiating with are doing so in bad faith; their actions are not rational disagreement, which can be worked out by discussion, but attempts to stall and stonewall so that there is no real discussion at all. In such a case, the point of civil disobedience is to establish conclusively that they cannot get away with this and must in fact negotiate honestly and fairly for mutual benefit. The argument of Couto and Kahane, however, would rule out this justification, in which protest involving civil disobedience is understood as itself an expression of the view that negotiation cannot be done due to the bad faith of an opposing side. Nor is this the only situation in which being able to identify something as bad faith is valuable in political life; to lose this ability is a very high cost.

(2) Their argument against the epistemic reading is inadequate. On the epistemic reading, the problem with early debate is that it distorts deliberation -- either because there is not enough information, or because emotions are running too hot, or because the kinds of emotions on which we tend to act in the wake of tragic events tend toward bad judgment. Given that they place such emphasis on deliberation, one would think that this would require some close attention, but most of what Couto and Kahane say in response to this is vague and incomplete. For instance, this is their argument in the summary against the idea that you tend not to have all the information in the aftermath of a tragic event:

However, in very many cases we know enough fairly soon. And starting debate early needn’t mean that its conclusions must be hasty—when we start debate, and when we end it, so to speak, are different issues. In any event, one often hears the complaint that ‘now is not the time’ even when all the relevant facts are known. So the complaint couldn’t be just the banal advice to wait till enough information is in.

The paper adds a few minor nuances to this. But very notably, nowhere is it ever shown that this is true. In particular, we would need to know why we should think that "in very many cases" we know soon enough that it counts as early debate, such that it is "often" the case that "all the relevant facts are known" -- and, what Couto and Kahane glide over, all this known in such a way as to be appropriate to public debate, that is, widely known and in such a way that it can be identified as known at the time. Couto and Kahane never defend this assertion that we often have all the information we need early, and on the face of it, it is at least controvertible. Moreover, contrary to what the summary suggests, waiting until enough information is in is not "banal advice" but is generally regarded as one of the constituent features of most forms of rational discussion. So it seems odd, at least, and perhaps question-begging, just to assume that the information is usually in very quickly when the whole complaint being addressed shows that there are plenty of people who do not think this is true. What is more, thinking about a number of major tragedies, I'm not convinced that the evidence holds up the assertion here. In dealing with disasters, there is a common phenomenon of early information being incorrect or crucially incomplete, investigations can take a very long time to do properly, especially since what needs to be investigated is not just the tragic event itself but the whole lead-up to the tragic event, and the distribution of information is subject to many failings. One of the kinds of tragic events that Couto and Kahane point to is shooting massacres; these are tragic events that in the recent past have led pell-mell into early debates, but there seems to be no evidence at all that they result in the spread of the kind of information needed for informed debate.

Likewise, they note that anger and grief can sometimes focus the mind for practical deliberation and thinking through the issues. This is true, but there is an obvious gap here between thinking something through yourself and having a public debate about it; it's a long road between 'Individual deliberation can sometimes be focused and made more rational by anger and grief' and 'Public debate can sometimes be focused and made more rational by anger and grief'. For one thing, most people, unlike Couto and Kahane, are going to be very skeptical of the latter. If we take a tragic event that does not seem to be the kind that Couto and Kahane have in mind -- someone who is in the country in violation of immigration laws murders a couple of kids, or a policeman guns down a black teenager on flimsy grounds -- large numbers of people will worry that anger over this matter will lead people to favor positions in public debate that they would not favor in a calmer moment, and that the options for action will be distorted by this anger. Now, whether or not they happen to be right in that particular case, I don't see anything in the argument given by Couto and Kahane that really shows why the worry can be dismissed. Individual anger may well focus the mind, make one see what one did not before, and be a learning moment, changing your view; but why is it such a problem to insist that public debate should be left to cooler heads? Couto and Kahane try to separate public debate from immediate action, but early public debate is an immediate action. In public debate after tragic events, people regularly put on the table options and possibilities for action that would not have been considered earlier, or try to press for options and possibilities for action that require significant changes. In public debate people are actively trying to change both the actions that are possible and those that will be preferred -- that's the whole point of public debate.

The primary problem, though, is that while Couto and Kahane focus on the possible contributions of emotion to thinking things through, they don't really have an adequate answer to the question, "Why should these emotions be expressed in public debate rather than in the very large number of other possible ways they could be expressed?" Why public debate rather than contemplative reflection? That's not an absurd question; engaging, as a public, in contemplative reflection is a standard part of civilized society. It's why we have memorial services and memorial holidays and days of fasting or thanksgiving. The whole question is why debate should get a priority here as an expression of what we are going through rather than something else, like pause or mutual learning, given that it's widely recognized that anger, grief, and the like can lead to the deterioration of public debate and public deliberation. They briefly address something like this worry in response to an anonymous reviewer, and concede that sometimes this might be legitimate, but then dismiss it as something that will not be common -- another controversial and potentially question-begging claim for which they give no evidence whatsoever. They also have an argument based on division of moral labor, but I honestly don't see how it gets the conclusion, "Public debate is a permissible response early in a tragedy" rather than "If public debate is a permissible response early in a tragedy, then such occasions are particularly important for public debate." Perhaps the gap between the two would be easier to jump (although it is still a gap) if their responses to the three readings were conclusive, but they don't seem to be.

(3) Their response to the ethical reading is inconsistent with distinctions they themselves make. I find it somewhat misleading to call it the 'ethical reading', since all the readings are ethical in some way, but what Couto and Kahane mean is taking the complaint to be that early public debate is inconsistent with the kinds of moral obligations that tragic events create. A major issue is that people often think that there is something disrespectful about making the aftermath of a tragic event about one's preferred politics rather than about supporting the victims. Couto and Kahane's argument seems to run together a distinction they recognize elsewhere, between the beginning of a debate and its end. In the summary, they say:

However—and building on our responses to the previous objections—failure to tie a tragedy to the larger issues may itself be disrespectful to the victims. If the tragedy is due to great injustice, then pure grief may be incomplete; it should be accompanied by anger or outrage. As we said above, a proper understanding of the tragedy requires a grasp of its significance. In other words, by tying an event to something larger, we can increase, rather reduce, its individual meaning. We make it matter more.

In the paper they say:

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, failure to tie a tragedy to the larger issues may itself be disrespectful to the victims, and compromise our emotional response to the event. If the tragedy is due to great injustice, then pure grief may be incomplete, it should be accompanied by anger or outrage. Often the most active campaigners of a cause are those who lost a loved one through an injustice. And sometimes it is actually those closest to the victims who wish to tie to broader debate and draw general lessons from the tragedy.

Both of these ways of stating the argument seem to confuse the initiation of the debate with its culmination. The claim about disrespect is that one should wait to debate, not that one should never "tie a tragedy to the larger issues". Couto and Kahane regularly recognize this in opposing the epistemic reading; but their entire response to the ethical reading consistently fails to appreciate that the same point could be made to their own argument. They do seem to recognize something like the problem, but their way of handling it is to claim that if you say something like that, it just collapses into the claim that you should leave space for grief -- which is quite clearly false, since saying you should leave space for grief is very different from saying that you would be disrespecting the victims. (Our obligations to those grieving overlap but are not equivalent to our obligations to victims. Couto and Kahane also do not clearly distinguish these obligations from our obligations to society at large, although all three are distinct.) Despite the fact that the ethical reading is characterized by moral obligations, or at least something like moral obligations, they do not consider how the specific obligations might directly require responses inconsistent with public debate, despite the fact they consider how other specific obligations might require public debate as a response.

It's entirely possible, though, that I've misunderstood their intended argument on the ethical reading; I had difficulty following the structure of the argument, and difficulty relating some of the structure of this part of the argument in their paper to the way they present it in their summary.

As I noted, I have other problems with the argument. I think, for instance, that it is a mistake to think in terms of 'readings' -- these aren't really different readings of a claim, but multiple reasons for accepting it. And as has often been pointed out, that an objection can be made against one argument for a conclusion, and another objection can be made against another argument for it, and so on, does not always mean that the arguments for the reason fail. It may mean that they shouldn't be considered one by one, because they address different problems. In Swinburne's famous metaphor, a bucket with a hole may not hold water, but if you take a bucket with a hole, and put another bucket tightly in it with a hole in a different place, and so forth, the redundancies may well give you a bucket that holds water. If we were dealing with rigorous refutation it would be one thing, but Couto and Kahane often are giving arguments that are based on what often happens, what usually happens, and so forth, since the kinds of worries they are addressing pretty obviously have merit at least sometimes. But different kinds of 'at least sometimes' can add up eventually to 'enough'. This goes both ways, of course, but I think treating these as different readings rather than different reasons lets Couto and Kahane treat them as separate when they are probably mutually reinforcing. I also think their positive argument conflates public debate and public deliberation, which overlap but should not be conflated. But these and other reasons are related to substantive views I hold that could possibly be controverted; the above seem to me to identify structural problems with who Couto and Kahane build their argument.

* I say 'in the midst of the tragedy' because that is what in fact we are talking about here: the aftermath of a tragic event is still part of the tragedy. When the World Trade Center towers fell, that was a tragic event; but the aftermath was not any less of a tragedy -- people struggling to sort out their lives in the wake of the event is still part of the tragedy and what makes it a tragedy. In other words, we should distinguish between the aftermath of the tragic event (which is still part of the tragedy, the tragic event working itself out tragically), and the aftermath of the tragedy (in which we are generally dealing only with second-generation issues arising from the aftermath of the tragic event, and which may last for a long time after).

Lent XXI

Having been baptized into Christ, and put on Christ, you have been made conformable to the Son of God; for God having foreordained us unto adoption as sons, made us to be conformed to the body of Christ's glory. Having therefore become partakers of Christ, you are properly called Christs, and of you God said, Touch not My Christs, or anointed. Now you have been made Christs, by receiving the antitype of the Holy Ghost; and all things have been wrought in you by imitation, because you are images of Christ. He washed in the river Jordan, and having imparted of the fragrance of His Godhead to the waters, He came up from them; and the Holy Ghost in the fullness of His being lighted on Him, like resting upon like. And to you in like manner, after you had come up from the pool of the sacred streams, there was given an Unction, the antitype of that wherewith Christ was anointed; and this is the Holy Ghost....

[St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Lecture 3, also sometimes known as Catechetical Lecture 21. There was a period during which scholars often questioned whether St. Cyril actually did write the Mystagogical Lectures (it's not controversial that he wrote the Catechetical Lectures); but the arguments against have never been particularly strong, and his authorship is generally recognized today. ]

'Christ', of course, is Greek for 'Anointed', so to receive Chrism is to become a Christ. Later in the lecture, Cyril says that it is chrismation that makes us Christians, establishing us in the name; before confirmation, we are merely becoming Christian.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Seven Grandfathers

The major traditions of virtue ethics are the Aristotelian, the Neoplatonist, the Stoic, and the Confucian. But there are many minor traditions -- 'minor' here just meaning less widely known -- that are worthwhile. One of the minor traditions that I think deserves to be more widely known is the Anishinaabe doctrine of the Seven Grandfathers. The Anishinaabeeg are a related family of Native American tribes, of whom I believe the Ojibwe are the biggest group.

The exact history of the Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers is very difficult to pin down. The roots are certainly very old, but the precise listing of Seven is probably relatively new, an attempt to pull together, in a summary form, a wide range of traditional teachings so that they would not be lost. The exact list of seven varies somewhat. Probably the best known is that of Edward Benton-Banai, whose coloring book, The Mishomis Book, is the most widely read exposition of the doctrine, although there are other, somewhat different versions, because, I think some people find aspects of Benton-Banai's approach to be confusing or else incomplete. In any case, Benton-Banai tells the story that the Seven Grandfathers sent their messenger through the world to assess the state of life among the human beings, and the messenger came across a human child in need of teaching, to whom he gave the teachings required for living a good life and for the survival of a people. has a good summary of one version of the list, the one that I think in some ways makes the most structural sense, linking them to Ojibwe proverbs and giving audio files to help with the pronunciation of the names:

1. Minwaadendamowin – Respect
2. Zaagidiwin – Love
3. Debwewin – Truth
4. Aakodewewin – Bravery
5. Nibwaakawin – Wisdom
6. Miigwe’aadiziwin – Generosity
7. Dibaadendiziwin – Humility

All of the more detailed expositions I've ever found tend to suggest something like a unity-of-virtues thesis -- that is, the idea is that these virtues are actually interdependent, so that to have any of them requires exercising them all. Sometimes, as in the above link, you find the Seven Grandfathers paired with the 'Seven Rascals', the most opposing vice -- Disrespect, Fear, Dishonesty, Cowardice, Ignorance, Greed, and Pride. Of course, English translations do not always do perfect justice to the nuances; I'm told, for instance, that 'Dibaadendiziwin' suggests a more communal or cooperative idea than the English word 'humility' -- you are not merely not above someone, you are with them. I think this is an advantage of linking the virtue-words to the relevant proverbs and maxims, as the website does, which often help recover some of the nuances that are lost in the bare translation.

Lent XX

What is Confirmation?

It is a Sacrament conferred upon the Baptized by a Bishop, in which grace is conferred through the Holy Chrism and the most holy words, and a fortification of the Spirit is added, both to firmly believe, and when it might be necessary, to freely confess the name of the Lord.

[St. Peter Canisius, A Small Catechism for Catholics, Grant, tr., Mediatrix Press (2014), p. 59.]

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

As If Recently Heathen

I once thought, and thought for a very long time, that it would be very interesting to live in a generation when a society shifted from pagan to Christian, and people are still trying to sort things out, where people's Christianity is sincere but growing in a soil that's still esssentially heathen -- the Germanic tribes in the Greco-Roman period, or Iceland in the middle of Njal's Saga, or Lithuania in the fifteenth century. But there came a time when I suddenly realized that it's actually not hard for us in the modern West to know what this would be like, because the way modern education and upbringing works has a very similar effect: whatever our family may have been, and no matter how sincere our Christianity, it's as if we are, every generation, recently converted.

I was thinking of this today. When discussing virtue ethics, I always do a section on the cardinal virtues, because you can't really do virtue ethics without looking at how specific virtues work. And I always make sure to mention that 'prudence', 'providence', and 'provision' are very closely related words, because this is true and I think important for how the words have worked historically. It's only the intrinsic importance that leads me to do it; it's certainly not that it makes pedagogy easier, because the overwhelming majority of my college students cannot tell me what the word 'providence' means. They usually can't even go so far as to say that you might hear the word in a religious context. They don't remember ever coming across the word. I find it impossible to believe even in this day and age that they have really never come across it, ever, but it's certainly true that they have come across it so rarely that they don't remember it at all. I cannot really wrap my mind around that, but it is true, term after term. It's been true as long as I've been asking. Many of them are Christian, and are strictly speaking committed to it; for that matter, more than a few of the non-Christians are in fact committed to something of the sort. But you couldn't tell that from their language; it's as if they recently converted and their language is still catching up.

Tomorrow I'll look a bit at the cardinal virtues in IV Maccabees, which is a minor classic in virtue ethics. There are no Maccabees in IV Maccabees (it's a philosophical reflection on II Maccabees, which also has no Maccabees), but it covers the period of the Maccabean martyrs, that is, the lead-up to the revolt by the Maccabees. But I will certainly have to explain what a Maccabee is, because it's important context, and I always have to explain it, because they don't have even the most vague and loose knowledge of who the Maccabees were. I remember when I started teaching that I was just utterly floored, astounded, baffled, that the majority of my Catholic students and a large minority of my Jewish students had no idea who the Maccabees were. It still flummoxes me, to some extent; I grew up Southern Baptist and I could have told you who the Maccabees were, and the story of Hanukkah, when I was twelve years old. That's one of the reasons it so baffled me; I thought everybody learned that sort of thing. That there are Catholics and Jews who don't, despite being Catholics or Jews, is truly remarkable. I would have understood being hazy about it; being completely in the dark about it, having gone through childhood and part of adulthood without ever having come across it, made and still makes no sense to me. But so it is. And it's certainly true that you can be Catholic, sincerely and definitely Catholic, without knowing who the Maccabees are; that's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect, in fact, of people who became Catholic in a context that had itself only recently become Catholic.

I consistently have students in my Intro classes, probably the majority of students in every class, who don't recognize "In the beginning was the Word" is from the Gospel of John (it comes up briefly when I talk about Middle Platonism and the transition to Neoplatonism, again because of the intrinsic importance and not because it makes it easier to teach). We're not talking about not being able to recall it from memory on their own; we're talking that most don't even recognize it and many of those who do might only be tipped off to the possibility that it is from the Bible if you continued the rest of the verse and so mentioned God. But most of my students are Christian, and quite sincerely so.

This is not a rant about ignorance; obviously there are other things they do recognize quite well and can talk quite intelligently about. And sometimes it's a matter of their not knowing what they already know, and not recognizing what they have seen in a different form. And more importantly, I don't think any of us are really any different. Those of us who know more do so because we deliberately set out to learn more, in very much the same way that some people did in societies that had only Christianized in the past generation or two. Some may have had a bit of an extra boost from one thing or another, but it doesn't seem to change the fundamental nature of being Christian in an ambience that is only uncertainly Christian, as if the whole thing were new. The ignorance is much the same ignorance, yes, but so is the learning; the apathies are the same, yes, but so are the zeals.

I couldn't say precisely what it is the cause of it all, or why the modern West manages to do this repeatedly. I don't think I really have a moral to all this. I certainly don't have a solution. I'm not even sure it needs a definite solution, rather than just time to work itself out naturally. In the long run, it makes little difference; things go in cycles and history shows that even evangelism itself really only occurs through layers laid on layers by a tide that goes in and out. But I think a lot of the problems Christian churches have are partly explained by the fact that we are all acting, however strange it may be that we are so acting, as if we were all in the first or second generation of a conversion from heathenism.

Lent XIX

Now, the power that restores is the power of the whole Trinity, whom Holy Mother Church believes in her heart, confesses in word, and proclaims in signs, recognizing the distinction, properties, order, and natural origin of the three persons. This power is also that of the passion of Christ, who died, and was buried, and rose again on the third day. Therefore, to express all these things in the sacrament which is the first of all the sacraments and in which this power is first and primarily active, there ought to be an expression of the Trinity through a distinct, proper, and orderly mention of names.

[St. Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Monti, ed. and tr., Franciscan Institute Publications (St. Bonaventure, NY: 2005) p. 233.]

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Evening Note for Tuesday, March 26

Thought for the Evening: The Period Room as Artifact, Sign, and Instrument

Marie-Ève Marchand recently had an interesting post on the OUP History Blog on period rooms as museum-made artifacts, based on some of her work on the South Kensington Museum Sérilly Room, one of the roots of the practice of museums creating period rooms. Her description of what a period room is:

A period room is a display combining architectural components, pieces of furniture, and decorative objects organized to evoke—and in some rare cases recreate—an interior, very often domestic and dating from a past era.

As she notes, period rooms have been extraordinarily popular, giving a greater sense of coherence and unity than most museum exhibits, and also a sense of immersion, but there has been a great deal of criticism of them in recent years as space-hogging and inauthentic.

A great deal of the public face of a museum is, in one way or another, classification. Museums have to have some kind of organization of what they exhibit, and some way of giving people a sense of what they are seeing, and that requires some kind of method or principle for classifying things. There are a great many ends for which one could classify, each one providing different desiderata for classification, but when we are talking about museums, two ends of classification are especially important: preservation and pedagogy. Much of how a museum works is concerned with keeping track of things, ordering things so that they will be properly maintained, and so forth; thus preservation is one of the major goals in how a museum structures everything. But I take it that period rooms are primarily geared toward the end of pedagogy: they are there to teach. A classification geared for teaching needs to provide some way for people to contextualize what they are being shown, and I think the absolutely conclusive argument for the value of period rooms is that they are instruments of pedagogy that have few peers in the context of a museum. The major reason for this, I think, is that unlike most kinds of museum exhibit, they are not merely chronological or etiological means of classification, but functional; understanding things by room-function comes very easily to human beings.

A period room, of course, is a sign. If we try to understand what kind of sign it is using Peirce's classification of signs, which is the most widely respected classification in use today, period rooms seem clearly to be 'rhematic iconic sinsigns'. A rheme is a generalization of the idea of a logical term; it is opposed to a dicent and a delome, which are generalizations of propositions and arguments, respectively. The primary function of a rheme is to stand for something, which may or may not exist; its success at this does not itself depend on any strict correspondence to anything or any meeting of higher-level conventional standards -- it just has to be recognizable as standing for something. An icon (in Peirce's sense), as opposed to an index or symbol, has its ability to signify from its resemblance to what it signifies (an index signifies by causal connection and a symbol by conventional representation). And a sinsign is a sign that represents insofar as it is itself an actually existing thing, as opposed to a qualisign (representing insofar as it involves a quality that other things could possibly have) and a legisign (representing insofar as it represents a necessity or law). Every period room is a sinsign that gives an individual example of at least one more general phenomenon (a legisign) that is that kind of period room.

The reason for going through all of this is that if we look at what other kinds of things can be rhematic iconic sinsigns, the most obvious examples are diagrams -- particular diagrams rather than the general idea of a kind of diagram. This, I think, is significant for understanding how period rooms work: they can almost be considered a kind of historical diagram. Diagrams work by guiding, and ultimately training, the imagination. From the way some kind of curators talk about period rooms, you would think that their view of pedagogy consists in showing people an isolated object and then lecturing them about it. But words are a fairly high-level and abstract way to teach and learn. There is a reason why lecturers have a tendency to go to diagrams whenever they can do so, and that is that teaching requires not merely letting people know what words are relevant (which is all a lecture does), but also guiding their imagination so that they use it correctly in working through an idea. ('Correctly' here means 'in a way that, practically speaking, is good enough to get them closer to the right way of thinking about things.) In this sense we can see that worries about the 'authenticity' of a period room are to some extent misguided; just as it is not necessary for a diagram to be perfectly accurate, but only sufficiently so for practical purposes, so too a period room can fulfill its function as long as it is not grossly misleading. Period rooms are by nature approximate, as diagrams are approximate; this does not in any way affect their value.

This relates, of course, to Marchand's argument. Training the imagination, as part of pedagogy, has to begin with human beings as they are, and give them an imagination-model they can use to think with. It has to be something that can strike their imagination, and this will not always be the same through time or in different places. Because of this, the (successful) period room is also a sign, at any given time, of both the kind of teaching people are trying to do and the kinds of things that appeal to people's imagination.

Taking all of this into account, we could perhaps give a rough definition of a period room: A period room is a curator-developed instrument consisting in a bounded spatial composition of primarily visual elements, the salient features of which are traces of the past or (at times) imitations of such traces, classifying them according to their contribution to the function of a room designated in terms of a period, for the purpose of training the imagination so that we are better able to contextualize traces of the past. This gives us the formal cause (the classification according to room-function), the final cause (imagination-training), the material cause (the physical components in the room, especially insofar as they are viewable), and the efficient cause (somebody acting at least in the role of a curator using the period room as an instrument).

(Period bedroom at The Georgian House, Edinburgh, Scotland.)

Various Links of Interest

* Thomas Izbicki and Matthias Kaufmann, School of Salamanca, at the SEP. A nice, quick survey of some of the important ideas.

* The Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana recently restored Raphael's cartoon (guiding sketch) of The School of Athens; The History Blog discusses what they did for the restoration.

* An interview with Peter Adamson on the history of philosophy

* Steve Perisho on the history of the phrase 'semper reformanda'.

* A typology of fictional life swaps at Lapham's.

* Jonathan Brich on joint know-how.

* Stephen Bainbridge, Lay Review With Teeth: What (Didn’t) Happen at the Vatican’s Sexual Abuse Summit at "Public Discourse"

* Jaspreet Singh Boparai, The French Genocide that Has Been Air-Brushed from History, on the Vendee

* James Chastek, Rationalism and the object of intuition

* Jennifer Frey, Happiness as the Constitutive Principle of Action in Thomas Aquinas

* A look at the most recent technology in nuclear reactors.

* Duke, the most beloved mayor in America, recently died.

Currently Reading

Jules Verne, The End of Nana Sahib
Charles Péguy, Notes on Bergson and Descartes
Jaroslav Pelikan, Faust the Theologian
Plotinus, The Enneads
Blaise Pascal, Pensees
Jules Verne, L'Archipel en feu


We should also note that when Lazarus was lying dead, he asks the woman for the assent of faith on his behalf, as it were, so that this type may have force in the churches as well. What I mean is this: when a newborn infant is brought either to receive the chrism of the catechumenate or the [chrism] at the consummation of holy baptism, the one who brings the child says "amen" on its behalf. And for those who are going to be baptized because they are seized by extreme sickness, certain people make the renunciation [of Satan] and declare attachment [to Christ], lending their own voice, as it were, out of love to those assailed by sickness.

[St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Volume 2, Maxwell & Elowsky, trs. IVP Academic (Downers Grove, IL: 2015) p. 88. He is commenting on John 11:25-27.]

Monday, March 25, 2019

Incarnation's Feast

Today, of course, is the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Feast of the Announcement to Mary

The Angel went to Nazareth, Alleluia:
"Peace, O Mary, maiden given great grace,
blessed are you among women, greatly favored!
Have no fear! Your God is gracious to you,
and you shall conceive a Son whose name is Jesus."

Mary was with wonder filled: "I am but a girl,
a maiden; how can I bear a son?"
"Mary, the Holy Spirit overshadows you,
with divine might is descending on you,
You shall bear God's Son. With God all is possible."

Then did the holy Virgin say, "Let it be so,
for I am the handmaiden of the Lord!"
O Mary, receiving peace from God, you give peace;
you restored Eve's children to their true place;
in you the Word was made flesh to dwell among us.

O Lord, we do not understand and are amazed;
we are blinded by Your eternal flame.
The incense of our prayer alone can we give;
we hide behind its smoke in Your presence,
for great is the might that comes upon Your altar!


The necessity of baptism is so great that if anyone were to die without reception of Baptism, or at least desire for it, he could by no means enter heaven. Because infants are liable to danger of this sort, and can easily die, but still do not have capacities to desire Baptism, therefore it is necessary to baptize them as soon as possible. And although they do not understand that which they receive, nevertheless, the Church supplies that which it responds and pledges for them by means of the godparents, which suffices. Just as by Adam we have all fallen into sin and disfavor with God when we still did not know it, so also it is enough for God if, through Baptism and the Church, we are freed from sin and received in its grace even if we do not yet notice.

[St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctrina Christiana: The Timeless Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine, Grant, tr., Mediatrix Press (2016) pp. 159-160.]

Bellarmine's language, "Baptism, or at least desire for it," follows that of the Council of Trent (Session 6, Chapter 4) about translation to the state of grace: "this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God".

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Three New Poem Drafts

In Flight

Rippled like the wind-blown snow,
Clouds in blanket-hills below
Capture gleams that moonbeams cast
After plane-wings that have passed;

Wisps of ghostly shadows float,
Catching like a broken note
Shapes that wayward winds have wrought,
Subtly there, then subtly not,

As we in flight now leap and span
Mountains, lakes, and towns of man.


On high the cloud is shining gold
where Tabor's hill is rising, bold;
our Lord our God has glories shown
and all his realm to us made known.

I see the light stream through His face
who lived and died to give us grace;
in vestment pure and glowing white,
he gives his truth to faith and sight.

The law prepared that we might wait
and know the one to change our fate;
the prophets hoped and showed the way
that we might find our Lord this day.

Lord, I, a fool, am bowed in heart;
I do not know my place or part,
but, if you will, my heart is yours
through every age where love endures.

Though less than nill I have to give,
my Lord, take all my life to live,
take all my death, for you to die,
and grant this light to see you by.


Let holy fate fall where it falls:
My flaw is clear; I hope, I lose,
I fall for easy ruse. I know
the dawn, its light, that, slow,
upon the brightning road will flow, and tread
across the deepening red;
my hope is real; my hope is small.

The heart is made of all its woe.
I know this hurt, its slow, tight mesh,
the cold of steel on flesh,
the jostle thick with thresh and toss,
the awful ache of loss.
I know -- yet I do not recall.
Let holy fate fall where it falls.

In Both Let's Do Our Best

by George Herbert

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos'd of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev'ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos'd of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree,
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men's abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour's purity;
Yet we are bid, 'Be holy ev'n as he, '
In both let's do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.