Saturday, October 12, 2019

Callista and Newman's Theology of Conversion (Re-Post)

Since Newman is being canonized, I will be here and there over the next week re-posting a few things that I have posted here that are relevant to him. This was first posted in 2007 and then again in 2015. Mark Gallagher at Commonweal recently had an article discussing Newman as a novelist.

If no one knew that John Henry Newman had written Callista, any literary scholar puzzling over the authorship of the work would be able to determine that it was written by either Newman himself or someone thoroughly permeated with his ideas. The novel, in fact, is saturated with a Newmanian theology of conversion.

Some background may be in order. Callista is intended to be a historical romance portraying Christianity in the third century, specifically for a Catholic audience. The major characters of the work are Agellius and Callista herself. Curiously, while she is mentioned in conversation earlier, Callista does not appear in person until Chapter 10. Of the other characters, the only ones of importance are Juba and Jucundus, relatives of Agellius, and the priest Caecilius, who turns out to be a rather important historical personage, better known under one of his other names. The events take place in and around the town of Sicca Veneria (modern-day Al-Kaf or El Kef in Tunisia); while not nearly as large as Carthage to the northeast, it nonetheless is fairly important as the seat of the Proconsular Africa. The novel opens during a time of relative peace; Christianity has been declining in the area, to such an extent that Sicca has neither priest nor bishop, and the general view among the pagans in the area is that it is (finally) dying out there, although there is worry about the pervasive influence of Christians across the empire. There are, in fact, only a handful of Christians in Sicca at all, and most of those are merely nominal. While Agellius sincerely believes in Christian doctrine, his brother Juba is only nominally Christian (and that only when he feels like it, being inclined to local superstitions), and his uncle Jucundus is a pagan. Even Agellius is merely a catechumen, and has been for most of his life, not moving forward; he is "stuck fast in the door of the Church," and it's the view of both his brother and his uncle that only a little nudge will back him out. The particular nudge they think most likely to nudge him out is Callista, a beautiful and intelligent pagan Greek with whom he is smitten. Callista, however, turns out to be a more complex person than they had thought, for while she is definitely pagan, she has considerable sympathy toward Christianity. Things become complicated as the Decian persecution finally reaches Proconsular Africa and is officially put into effect there. And that's the basic line of the story.

Much of the novel is concerned with the conversion of Callista, and it is here that we see Newman's theology clearly manifested. Callista's conversion is, in essence, an interaction with three Christians: Chione, her maidservant, who has already died, and is the reason for Callista's sympathy toward Christianity; Agellius; and Caecilius, a priest who is riding around the countryside giving aid to Christians while hiding from the authorities, whose true identity we only learn in Chapter 20. In the Oxford University Sermons Newman has an important but often-overlooked sermon on personal influence as the means of propagating truth. In it Newman argues that moral truth, and in particular the truth of Christianity, is not generally propagated by miracles, arguments, or a Church hierarchy, although these may play a role in scattered cases. The real means by which moral truth is propagated in the world is personal influence, in the 'inherent moral power' we observe in some of those from whom we learn. These people are simultaneously the teachers of moral truth and the models by which we understand it. People in the world are drawn to the beauty and majesty of their characters; they recognize them to be rare and therefore precious; they regard them as in some sense out of their league; they are directly influenced by it. This is precisely the way Callista is affected by Chione, Agellius, and Caecilius; she feels that they are somehow sublime, that there is something in them which is worth having, even though she does not know quite what it is. Indeed, for a very long time she knows nothing of Christianity except that there is something attractive in Chione, Agellius, and Caecilius. As the narrator expresses it (in Chapter 27):

But then again, if she had been asked, what was Christianity, she would have been puzzled to give an answer. She would have been able to mention some particular truths which it taught, but neither to give them their definite and distinct shape, nor to describe the mode in which they were realised. She would have said, "I believe what has been told me, as from heaven, by Chione, Agellius, and Cæcilius:" and it was clear she could say nothing else. What the three told her in common and in concord was at once the measure of her creed and the ground of her acceptance of it. It was that wonderful unity of sentiment and belief in persons so dissimilar from each other, so distinct in their circumstances, so independent in their testimony, which recommended to her the doctrine which they were so unanimous in teaching.

In a slave, a country boy, and a learned priest she saw something that they all shared, particularly when they spoke of divine love. She has no commitment to Christian doctrines; but the Christian image found in her three sources, however vaguely defined, does provide a conduit by which those doctrines reach her in at least a vague form and impress her. The attraction borders on worship; as the narrator says of her attitude to Caecilius, "In spite of what she had injuriously said to him, she really felt drawn to worship him, as if he were the shrine and the home of that Presence to which he bore such solemn witness."

In Chapter 28 we are introduced to another way in which Callista's process of conversion exhibits echoes of Newman's theology, because Callista recognizes a sort of divine vocation. This is briefly mentioned in the sermon on personal influence to which I've just referred, when Newman talks about those "who acknowledge the voice of God speaking within them, and urging them heaven-ward"; but it is more extensively discussed elsewhere. The most famous discussion is that in the essay on Assent. In the Oxford University Sermons, the key passage is found in the sermon on the influences of natural and revealed religion. By 'natural religion' he means not religion based on reason alone, but those admirable aspects of the attempts by non-Christian people to worship God as they should. The foundation of this natural religion is conscience. Callista explicitly affirms natural religion in this sense:

"Well," she said, "I feel that God within my heart. I feel myself in His presence. He says to me, 'Do this: don't do that.' You may tell me that this dictate is a mere law of my nature, as is to joy or to grieve. I cannot understand this. No, it is the echo of a person speaking to me. Nothing shall persuade me that it does not ultimately proceed from a person external to me. It carries with it its proof of its divine origin. My nature feels towards it as towards a person. When I obey it, I feel a satisfaction; when I disobey, a soreness—just like that which I feel in pleasing or offending some revered friend. So you see, Polemo, I believe in what is more than a mere 'something.' I believe in what is more real to me than sun, moon, stars, and the fair earth, and the voice of friends. You will say, Who is He? Has He ever told you anything about Himself? Alas! no!—the more's the pity! But I will not give up what I have, because I have not more. An echo implies a voice; a voice a speaker. That speaker I love and I fear."

However, Newman holds that there is a weak point in natural religion understood this way; namely, that while it teaches "the infinite power and majesty, the wisdom and goodness, the presence, the moral governance, and, in one sense, the unity of the Deity," it nonetheless is limited in what it can convey of the divine Personality. He later did not like this way of stating it, since obviously many theists who are neither Jewish nor Christian believe in a personal God in some way or another. But something at least analogous to this lack Callista clearly feels, because she goes on immediately to say,

"O that I could find Him!" she exclaimed, passionately. "On the right hand and on the left I grope, but touch Him not. Why dost Thou fight against me?—why dost Thou scare and perplex me, O First and Only Fair? I have Thee not, and I need Thee."

Finally, in Chapter 29, Callista begins reading the Gospel of Luke and finally recognizes in clear outline the original Image which she had found echoed in Chione, Agellius, and Caecilius:

Here was that to which her intellect tended, though that intellect could not frame it. It could approve and acknowledge, when set before it, what it could not originate. Here was He who spoke to her in her conscience; whose Voice she heard, whose Person she was seeking for. Here was He who kindled a warmth on the cheek of both Chione and Agellius. That image sank deep into her; she felt it to be a reality.

This passage is suggestive of the passage on Gibbon in the later Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, in which he argues that an adequate account of the spread of Christianity has to include the Image of Christ, which was spread by personal influence in preaching and teaching, and which made it possible for people to assent to Christian doctrine with a 'real apprehension'. This is, in fact, the form of Callista's own conversion:

She now began to understand that strange, unearthly composure, which had struck her in Chione, Agellius, and Cæcilius; she understood that they were detached from the world, not because they had not the possession, nor the natural love of its gifts, but because they possessed a higher blessing already, which they loved above everything else. Thus, by degrees, Callista came to walk by a new philosophy; and had ideas, and principles, and a sense of relations and aims, and a susceptibility of arguments, to which before she was an utter stranger. Life and death, action and suffering, fortunes and abilities, all had now a new meaning and application. As the skies speak differently to the philosopher and the peasant, as a book of poems to the imaginative and to the cold and narrow intellect, so now she saw her being, her history, her present condition, her future, in a new light, which no one else could share with her. But the ruling sovereign thought of the whole was He, who exemplified all this wonderful philosophy in Himself.

Callista, then, is a novel shot through with Newman's theology. I have only considered it insofar as it relates to Callista's conversion. There are other examples that could be drawn on; for instance, part of Caecilius's striking discourse on love and omnipotence in Chapter 19 could be fruitfully compared to Newman's sermon on the omnipotence of God as the reason for faith and hope. But it suffices to show, I think, how much Callista is really an idea-novel, which probably explains some of Newman's curious choices in its composition (e.g., the two main characters, the fact that the primary character does not appear until a third of the way into the book, etc.).

Three New Poem Drafts


Hell you know exists;
it is there inside your heart
when good your thought resists,
when you take the lesser part,

not blazing torment's flame,
not towering demonial hall,
just you in your little game
and a soul grown weak and small.

A fantasy whose only cost
is reluctance to emerge;
you dream, and your way is lost,
swept by unreasoned urge.

Each vice distorts your mind,
and curves your thought around
until only your thought you find
and your voice is the only sound,

each moment that you waste
in unrepenting play
solidifying taste,
deferring waking day.

You may set your nose on high,
you may at your betters snear,
you may tell yourself a lie,
you may babble hate and fear,

but the world will be dry-eyed,
for your fangs will be removed,
nor will your empty pride
one angel's wing have moved,

for though you weep and wail,
your con is clear to view:
the patter that you sell
the saints will know untrue,

the excuses that you make
the saints will set aside,
knowing that they are fake
and hollow through inside.

No triumph will you know.
The plan rolls ever on,
and all your flash and show
is nothing to the dawn,

for like the edge, a thin, faint line,
on a vasty tesseract,
is all that you call "mine",
your widthless little tract,

and you a good will serve
whose ways you do not see.
The treadmill of your curve
cannot hold infinity.

Hell you know can be;
you've but to look inside.
I find it, too, in me,
the empty scam of pride.


Dry, and so dry,
with a chill in the sun
and a wind stripping bare
the moisture of life,
with a wrenching of nails,
with a drooping of head,
beyond what words can describe
on an unsuffering tongue,

but in a dry mouth
a bitter word of compassion
captures the truth,
the yearning to save others,
the aching of body,
and nothing to ease it
except vinegar and gall.

Shadow Realms

We are all in fact walking in the realm of the dead,
memories around us and ghosts in the head,
so many corpses beneath this endless dirt path,
so many saints saved and souls damned to wrath,
down in the cave where the shadow games are,
untouched by the rays of sun, moon, or star,
down in the underworld, shades of the real,
the fairies are hunting the children to steal,
and there do we walk, though we think that we breathe,
and ever around us the wraiths sigh and seethe.
What we call life is but life with the dead,
shadows around us and ghosts in the head.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Dashed Off XXI

The strength of obligation in an ethical system is linked to the extent of responsible action it assumes to be possible for human beings.

the conditions for correct application of licet corrigere defectus naturae

bodily integrity // conjugal integrity

healthy & unhealthy biological functioning as establishing a range of 'at least prima facie reasonable use of the body' and a bound of 'at least prima facie unreasonable use of the body'

No representative government can be designed that distributes representation solely by person or by citizen; they all must distribute it by some kind of (political) location and (political) time as well. Some boundaries of this kind are ineliminable from representation itself. It is always of people at places at times.

Albert: the Body is true food because maxime habet rationem ciborum; thereis nothing in it that does not contribute to its function as food. Similarly with the Blood, which is true drink.

priestly and royal authority as both kinds of deeming authority

Note Malebranche's claims that the act of sacramental absolution changes the momentary act of love of Order into a habit of love of Order, and that this is required by Trent, and that this is why the sacrament is required beyond mere contrition.

the community-constituting aspect of virtue (very clear in Aristotle)

Ironically, Mill's harm principle would work best in a society with largely shared views (and thus widespread agreement on what is harmful). The more diverse the views, the greater an issue the democratic flaw recognized by Plato would be.

privately deemed, socially deemed, legally deemed, sacrally deemed, divinely deemed

"...the body expresses the person." Wojtyla

The Church as the Body of Christ expresses the Person of Christ as the sign of His presence in the world.

Hume's argument that promise has no particular act of mind is eliminative: to promise is not to resolve, nor to desire, nor to will an action, because none of these obligate; and it cannot be a willing of the obligation, because obligation depends on sentiment, over which we have no control.
-- This overlooks the possibility that there is a pre-obligatory form of promising (e.g., arising out of the context of sympathy) such that obligation involves this act (which makes the promise intelligible) plus additional consideration (like with property justice).
-- It also overlooks the possibility that promise can be an act of specific-obligation construction that presupposes a more general obligation, i.e., that there is no new obligation, properly speaking, but only new specifics arising from how we choose to fulfill the general obligation.
-- Note that Hume assumes through that we would have no inclination to observe promises except from taking them to be obligatory. This is certainly false. Though there were no obligation to keep a promise, we would still often be uncomfortable with not keeping it, and sympathize with any irritation of others at our failing to do so.

The evidence that there is a 'peculiar act of mind annext to promises' is that we promise, and this act is not reducible to resolution, desire, mere willing to do something, or a mere communication of words. We recognize a promissory intent, e.g., in being able to identify by signs people who lack it. This intent is part of the structure of our actions, an initiatory element that sets a standard of failure or success distinct from other actions.

Men being naturally social, even where there is only a restricted generosity, they often perform actions for the interests of others without regard for reciprocal advantage. We see this in the behavior of children who, despite displaying extraordinary selfishness, often act generously in this way.

Both stability of property and transference of property depend on promise.

Hume's account of the development of promises is not bad if read as an account of the development of promise guarantees. (One sees the need for its being the latter when one sees that Hume's account requires the absurdity that promising is alien to friendship, one of the most common contexts for promising -- but a context not generally requiring special security.) Thus, as I've noted before, Hume is really talking about contract.

Even children recognize that the fact they said they will do something is a reason to do it, however defeasible or nondefinitive they may treat it.

"...married people are not only the symbols, but also the natural ministers of Jesus Christ and the Church. God has not joined them together only to prefigure his great design, but also to serve it." Malebranche

The sacraments of Torah go beyond those of natural law by being derived not from vow but from covenant.

sacraments of natural law: point :: sacraments of Torah : line :: sacraments of New Covenant : square :: Purgatory : cube :: Beatific Vision : tesseract

purgatory and the dark night of the soul (the latter as a sort of anticipation, in its effects, of the latter)

To be a more agent is to be both cause and author of meaning.

A promise is like a law in that it is a dictate of reason, by an authority, for good, promulgated.

"Three things are essential to a vow: the first is deliberation, the second is a purpose of will, and the third is a promise, wherein is completed the nature of a vow....Sometimes, however, two other things are added as a sort of confirmation of the vow, namely, pronouncement by word of mouth...and the witnessing of others." Aquinas (ST 2-2.88.1)

Hobbes gives the sovereign a role in promises that historically was only given to the gods or to God.

promise by simple assurance
promise with material assurance
promise with formal assurance
promise with formal assurance and external assurance

the parallels between gift and promise

An 'intuition' can hint at more than we definitely grasp in it, because intuiting is not always the same (as we see if we compare it in context of awareness to that in context of drifting off to sleep, which is not in the same mode, nor in the same fullness). We can have moments, even flickers, of greater than normal acuteness that go beyond our normal acuteness, that are difficult to treat as definitive because they are flickers, so that they only give us what *may be*. Thus the intuition hints at what it does not show to us with any definiteness.

Faith is a being-appropriated by revelation.

The operation manifests the power, which manifests the essences; thus the power to give grace and unite with Christ requires a being with the power to give grace and unite with Christ; this being must either be appearing as bread and wine, or using bread and wine as occasions or instruments for operation. The same may be said of baptismal water.

"The oath is what holds democracy together." Lycurgus

The ancients recognized chance as a causal explanation, but never fully grasped the power of cumulative chance. The latter is one of the genuine improvements of post-medieval thought.

'pedological' vs 'edaphological' accounts of the external world

the electron and virtual location

Sometimes Church teaching gives necessary paths; sometimes it gives safe paths; sometimes it gives generally ideal paths.

"In mores fortuna jus non habet." Seneca

forms of anti-realism about evil
(1) error theory: there is no evil
(2) nonobjectivism: evil is just an artifact of thinking a certain way
(3) noncognitivism: evil is just unpleasantness of some kind
(4) contrastivism: evil is just the less good

"Templum intras, templum exis, templum in domo tua manes, templum surgis." Augustine

Patriotism tends easily to kitsch because it involves sentimental celebration, which is made widely accessible by kitsch.

Damascene's meadow-delighting-the-eyes analogy for icons
icon : contemplation :: meadow : delight

"things that mutually illustrate each other undoubtedly possess each other's message." Nicaea II
"the honor paid an image traverses it, reaching the model."
Note that Nicaea II treats the book of the gospels, the sign of the cross, the icons of Christ and angels and saints, and the relics of martyrs as things entrusted to the Church; this entrustment is itself the tradition.

images that faintly suggest the Trinity (Damascene)
sun, light, burning rays
mind, speech, spirit within
rose tree, sprouting flower, sweet fragrance

"...the ark represents the image of Our Lady, Mother of God; so does the staff and the earthen jar." Damascene

When people unleash the principalities and powers on their enemies, they rarely think through how to return them to leash.

God as the given par excellence (Marion)

The given par excellence can only be giver and giving and gift.

The icon is made to please on being seen, but in particular to please those who have faith when it is seen in the context of prayer.

The sense of the faithful works much like presential self-knowledge -- it identifies the general 'that' more easily than the specifics of 'what'.

The Body of Christ as a whole is constituted as a Body by baptism, is transfigured in the Holy Spirit by confirmation, and is uplifted to God by holy orders.

society as compersonhood, the social as the compersonal

Person is microcosm by being directly ordered to God, as the macrocosm is.

No account of personhood can be right if it does not make some sense of the completion of personhood in union with God in the Beatific Vision.

immanent vs transcendent common good
exemplate vs exemplar common good
principal vs instrumental/secondary common good

"...the person requires membership in a society in virtue both of its dignity and its needs." Maritain
"The common good is common because it is received in persons, each one of whom is as a mirror of the whole."

diversitas sexus est ad perfectionem humanae naturae

The human experience of passion is of something that has both an aptitude to reason and a resistance to it.

There can be a Christian philosophy just as there can be a glorified body.

the redundantia of theology into philosophy
the saturation of philosophy by faith

God as Being : creation :: God as Love : recreation

Creation as gift anticipates grace.

The gift-quietism that takes all gift to be wholly without reciprocity is false to every kind of gift-giving.

Gift-giving is first and foremost symbolic in nature.

A state cannot arbitrarily make up punishments; every penal power it has must derive from something adequate to justifying the punishment.

While it is not in itself definitive, there is a genuine argument to be made that capital punishment requires delegation from God (like Gn 9:6 or Lev. 24:17) and that any state not acknowledging such delegation in some form cannot justly exercise the death penalty, since it does not acknowledge any source adequate to that penal power.

Every possibility is a sign or signifying of something else. The possibility of my going to the museum tomorrow is a sign of the actual contextual conditions of my mobile ability, the museum, and correlation of schedule, all of whose causes must be actual for there to be any sense in 'the possibility of my going to the museum tomorrow'.

The possibility of experience is a sign of something beyond experience.

ritual scheme : concept :: means of signifying : intuition

Sensory experiences have intrinsic 'pushes' and 'pulls' (sometimes quite complicated) by which we recognize their motive and final causality.

The meadow delights by both 'pushing' and 'pulling' at the same time in a way that gently exercises the mind.

Much of what has come to be called 'social justice' stands to social justice as kitsch to art.

In all of the sacraments, we human beings are transignified.

Unction makes the mortality of the body a preparation for glory. It is like a pre-baptismal anointing for something even greater than baptism.

the asceticism of respect for human dignity, the asceticism of respect for divine dignity

Belief would be more accurately modeled as a disjunction of probability assessments than as a single probability assessment.

Opposition to the death penalty is often linked to the expansion of state carceral authority -- the state gets more direct power from incarceration, which subjugates people, than from execution, which removes them.

the swearing etiquette of a language

Photios on the manner of signification of icons (Amphilochia q 210): "The dissimilitude which is observed among images does not void the nature and truth of the image. For the thing depicted is not expressed only by the figure of the body and the form of the colors, but also by its disposition, its harmonious action, its emphasis of passions, its dedication in holy places, the explanation of its inscriptions, and in other more prominent symbols which should not at all, or at least for the most part, be absent in the images of the faithful."

The state is not a supreme authority but a complete authority with respect to a specific end.

Act externally in such a way that the free use of your will is compatible with the freedom that is divine providence, which alone can reconcile all according to universal law.

The natural law that one must live peaceably as far as one can with those with whom one mus tlive is the foundation of every system of positive law.

intrinsically evil actions vs intrinsically morally unsafe actions
intrinsically evil actions vs universally extrinsically evil actions

Intrinsically morally unsafe actions require the defense of some kind of necessity.

Sins related to property are only rarely intrinsically immoral.

'verus philosophus est amator Dei'

That something is somehwere requires that there be something making possible an 'everywhere' within which it can be somewhere.
That something is at some times requires that there be something make possible an 'always' within which it can be sometime.

hnoro as "social witness" to human dignity (CCC)

The household is more natural than the city, and the city than the empire.

A problem with the personalist principle is that naive use does not provide any means for making the distinction between requirements and desiderata -- i.e., between things one is obliged to do and things that are best to do.

Satisfaction is an act of justice rendering to another, by acceptance of a penalty, what is due from a prior offense, for the purpose of restoring friendship broadly construed.

The actual practice of science involves so much compensation for error and variation that it provides no justification for strict determinism. All the evidence is always consistent with such inexactness, randomness, approximation, etc., being an objective part of the world: "Those observations which are generally adduced in favor of mechanical causation simply prove that there is an element of regularity in nature, and have no bearing whatever upon the question of whether such regularity is exact and universal, or not. Nay, in regard to this exactitude, all observation is directly opposed to it, and the most that can be said is that a good deal of this observation can be explained away." (Peirce)

"The movement of love is circular, at one and the same impulse projecting creations into independency and drawing them into harmony." (Peirce)

"...unless we love the truth, we shall never recognize it." Pascal

Those who have no community with which to think and to share their thought are much to be pitied.

In HoP, community tends to be conflated with influence, but it should probably be treated distinctly as a different kind of dynamic. Aristotle was influenced by Plato through his works, but being in the Academy was a very different thing.

We use bread and wine rather than wheat and grape because bread and wine are intrinsically ordered to shared meal, existing for that very purpose, and are extrinsically ordered as part of a particular custom of sharing meal that underlies the Last Supper.

spiritual being as subject from itself intending objects

The Eucharist has ceremonial rights as King and High Priest.

Human friendship proceeds out fo the past by shared memory and protends into the future by promise and shared obligation.

The notion of common law as 'court-made law' is a twentieth-century aberration, a form of active revisionism, and not a plausible account of most actual common law, in which customary law and shared rational principles are applied by courts, whose applications get their authority from the community rather than the courts. The statist character of the twentieth-century corruption is in fact toxic to a common law system.

We can perfectly well make sense of 'crime' independently of criminal law (most people do); 'crime' in criminal law is a simulation of this independent notion in the legal sign-system.

The purpose of criminal law is for the state to be and to show itself accountable to the people for and in protecting common good.

It is notable that both the decadents of the ancien regime and the Communists and Socialists tended to treat marriage as a bourgeois concept. This is not because it was, in fact, particularly bourgeois, but because the bourgeois had a pressing social need to treat marriage as more than an economic convenience. Thus both decadent aristocrats and Communists, out of contempt for the bourgeois, had incentive for degrading marriage, namely, to degrade the bourgeois.

Magisterial authority is an attribute of magisterial office, and can only be understood in light of the latter.

elegance as cultivated and partly artificial gracefulness

offense against human dignity
offense against concomitants of human dignity
offense against witnesses of human dignity
offense creating inappropriate context for human dignity

When one looks closely at the French Revolution, it is seen to be one long orgy of people renouncing other people's privileges.

aporia and title for inquiry

Thursday, October 10, 2019

It Is Something to Have Been

And having talked about anti-natalism, it is good to re-post a little Chesterton for a dose of common sense.

[Nicole Ensing Band, "The Great Minimum".]

The Great Minimum
by G. K. Chesterton

It is something to have wept as we have wept,
It is something to have done as we have done,
It is something to have watched when all men slept,
And seen the stars which never see the sun.

It is something to have smelt the mystic rose,
Although it break and leave the thorny rods,
It is something to have hungered once as those
Must hunger who have ate the bread of gods.

To have seen you and your unforgotten face,
Brave as a blast of trumpets for the fray,
Pure as white lilies in a watery space,
It were something, though you went from me today.

To have known the things that from the weak are furled,
Perilous ancient passions, strange and high;
It is something to be wiser than the world,
It is something to be older than the sky.

In a time of sceptic moths and cynic rusts,
And fattened lives that of their sweetness tire
In a world of flying loves and fading lusts,
It is something to be sure of a desire.

Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard;
Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
Let the thunder break on man and beast and bird
And the lightning. It is something to have been.

A Brief Jotting on Benatar's Anti-Natalism

There is a certain kind of philosophical swindle that tends to thrive in some academic contexts that consists first, of finding positions that are generally regarded as outrageous and pulling together arguments that avoid being immediately objectionable, and then second, of publicizing them for all their worth. It takes a certain amount of argumentative talent to do properly; and it takes that talent, a certain smoothness of tone and presentation, and a knack for finding the right kind of outrageous and matching the argument to them. To make it work you need something that people will find shocking but within possibility given common commitments, and you need to argue it well with the appearance of thorough reasonableness, so that you can attract the interest of nonphilosophers who want to seem clever by espousing positions out of the norm and of philosophers who want arguments to argue with. It's a swindle that can work very well; the way academic philosophy works nobody gets credit or reputation for expressing well a common sense argument for a common sense position, so if you want to get either of these things you have to throw a bit of razzle-dazzle into the argument. But if you do your tap-dancing right, you can win quite a bit of fame for it. It's the same principle behind Gorgias's "On the Non-Existent". Peter Singer is the grandmaster of it; nobody does it better. But David Benatar has been particularly active of late.

He recently had an article on his anti-natalism, spreading around the sales patter. Anti-natalism, of course, is the philosophical position that it is morally wrong to have children at all. It's a bit of a hard sell, but he has the argumentative tap-dance down well. It's a perfect topic for the swindle: it has nothing of value for ordinary people, it depends on arguments that even academics have difficulty following, but people who sign on get to think of themselves as cleverer than the rubes, and in a matter of moral importance, to boot. But it is all tap-dancing. Sophistry is never dead. And the position itself, despite Benatar's claims otherwise, is both mad and wicked: mad, because it takes a skewed line of reasoning to an absurdity and insists that this is not a reductio, and wicked, because it accuses the bulk of the human race of immorality for doing something entirely ordinary and decent.

Benatar considers first an argument that people generally disagree with this position because they feel that their own lives are in fact morally worthwhile. He responds:

It is curious that the same logic is rarely applied to those who are depressed or suicidal. In these cases, most optimists are inclined to think that subjective assessments can be mistaken.

This response only works to the limited extent it does because he has rigged it by framing the argument as if the point were that it were impossible for subjective assessment to be wrong, rather than (for instance) presumptively right, or always right for normally functioning adults, both of which would still be enough. But even if we insisted that subjective assessment of life's value is always right, the response is irrelevant. Anti-natalism is an extremely strong position; as a logical matter, its opponents do not have to argue the contrary extreme that every life is worth living in order to refute it, but only that enough are. And, quite clearly, most people are not suicidal or depressive. Benatar goes on to argue that if suicides and depressives can underestimate life's value, other people could overestimate life's value. But this, too, is irrelevant: first, because Benatar's opponents don't actually have to commit to the view that suicides and depressives are underestimating the value of their lives at all, and second, because even if they do, the cases aren't symmetrical -- nondepressive nonsuicidal people who think their lives worth living massively outnumber depressive or suicidal people who don't, and nondepressive nonsuicidal people are massively more likely to be thinking reasonably than depressive or suicidal people are, or, if you prefer, are massively less likely to be engaging in thought patterns (in making these judgments) that distort judgments in recognizable ways on other matters, and third, because what needs to be argued is not that people can overestimate the value of their lives, but that they do this so thoroughly and often and to such a degree that we should expect them generally to be judging the opposite of what is the case. Benatar recognizes that he himself only has to argue that the risk of a bad life is too high; he fails to recognize that ordinary people only need to have good reason, even on the terms of his own argument, to think that the risk is low enough.

The reason, of course, that Benatar has to argue as he does, is that his position hinges on the idea that the judgments of ordinary people can be dismissed as having any bearing on the conclusion. Ordinarily, if you are trying to determine the answer to a question like, "Is living more good than bad?" you would start by (among other things) looking at what people who are most informed about the matter judge to be the case. Nothing requires that these judgments be taken as infallible, but the endoxa give you a picture of what reasonable people tend to conclude on the basis of what they know, and that would be a form of evidence for the kind of conclusion you could draw. It could be, again, that people are missing something, or that their standards of judgment need work, or any number of other things, but this would have to be established independently, and their judgments would in any case be evidence that you would need to consider, and would be sufficient to establish something relevant to the conclusion. But, of course, if we start with ordinary people's assessments of whether living is more good than bad, we would be starting with a rather considerable body of evidence that indicates that it probably quite often is. What Benatar needs is a way to dismiss ordinary people as sources of evidence for the worthwhileness of their own lives.

Later in the essay, he tries to argue that we should distinguish the question, "How good a life can a human reasonably expect?", from the question, "How good is human life?". But in fact in this case they are the same question, if the latter is not interpreted in a crazy way. We aren't talking, pace Benatar, of how good human lives are in an absolute scale of goodness (which he never provides in any case); obviously human lives are less good than the lives of angels and infinitely less good than the life of God, for instance. But this is not like comparing mice and humans, or humans and angels. We are asking a question about a human decision -- whether it is good to have human children -- that (it is assumed by Benatar) requires assessment of what good one can reasonably expect of human lives, and "How good a life can a human reasonably expect?" is the sensible way to ask how good a human life is in that context. The only reason for distinguishing the questions is, again, to take the assessment out of the hands of ordinary human beings who usually look at what is good specifically for human beings when answering the question of whether a human life is more good than bad. (It is Benatar, in fact, who actually shifts questions, shifting between "Is life more bad than good?" and "Is life better not to have been?", which are completely different questions, unless, as noted below, you are making highly controversial ethical assumptions.)

If we clear away ordinary people as being so wrong that their assessments don't count as presumptive evidence, then we can move on to Benatar's primary line of argument:

Considering matters carefully, it’s obvious that there must be more bad than good. This is because there are empirical asymmetries between the good and bad things.

He gives a number of reasons to think this asymmetry is the case. This argument cannot get off the ground if we allow the testimony of ordinary people as to the quality of their own lives, because then we have presumptive to reason to take good as outweighing bad -- namely, almost everyone estimates the good to outweigh the bad. It's always possible even if the good outweighs the bad that these empirical asymmetries exist for particular comparisons of good or bad things. Perhaps it's true, for instance, that the worst pains are worst than the best pleasures, as Benatar claims, or that pain lasts longer than pleasure. I don't think either of these is true as a general rule (for instance, his argument for the first is problematic because people would arguably avoid making the trade precisely because they think their lives are actually pretty good to begin with, so there's no reason to make it much worse just to raise it a little bit more, particularly given that in the real world it would seem like trying to fix something that isn't broken), but even if they were, all this shows is that those particular comparisons are asymmetrical in such a way that badness outweighs goodness. There could very well be other comparisons in which goodness outweighs badness: for instance, it's often been thought that comparisons of quality of pleasure introduce an asymmetry that favors the good. Perhaps there are more kinds of pleasure than kinds of pain. Perhaps there are goods that have nothing to do with pleasure and pain that introduce asymmetries of their own.

Of course, what we are getting to is that Benatar's "obvious" conclusion is not, in fact, based on the empirical asymmetries, but on the standard of comparison being used to judge whether good outweighs bad or vice versa. Anti-natalism, after all, is an ethical position, so it matters what ethical approach is being used. Benatar by the time he has even started building his argument has put aside positions like Kant's -- who regards the moral law in us, as the supreme and per se good, as the standard of good -- and Aristotle's, and, indeed, a great many others. It is a very specific and far from universal -- and far from obvious -- ethical approach whose principles of evaluation are really doing the work here.

Benatar goes on to note a 'misanthropic' argument for anti-natalism (as opposed to the 'philanthropic' argument so far) that human beings are bad for everything else. I confess I've never seen how this kind of argument is supposed to work at all -- what ethical standard is in play here, given that ethics is something human beings do? So I will not consider it, beyond noting again that the conclusion doesn't actually follow from the facts noted, but from some underlying ethical principles that are not given. There's a lot of rhetorical lightshow going on, given that we don't really get a look behind the curtain.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

'Tis the Old History

The Age to Come
by Bl. John Henry Newman

When I would search the truths that in me burn,
And mould them into rule and argument,
A hundred reasoners cried,—"Hast thou to learn
Those dreams are scatter'd now, those fires are spent?"
And, did I mount to simpler thoughts, and try
Some theme of peace, 'twas still the same reply.

Perplex'd, I hoped my heart was pure of guile,
But judged me weak in wit, to disagree;
But now, I see that men are mad awhile,
'Tis the old history—Truth without a home,
Despised and slain, then rising from the tomb.

June 9, 1833.

Today is the feast of Bl. John Henry Newman, who will be canonized in a few days.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Radio Greats: The Black Cat (Mystery in the Air)

Mystery in the Air...Starring Peter Lorre...Presented by Camel Cigarettes....

Devoted to "great stories of the strange and unusual", Mystery in the Air knew exactly what its draw was. In its horror series form, it aired in 1947 as a summer replacement for The Abbott and Costello Show, and became a horror series starring the great Peter Lorre, and giving him a chance to show his acting chops in a very wide range of classic tales.

Lorre, a Hungarian born with the name Lazlo Lowenstein, was a famously genial guy, but he made his name by playing creepy and dangerous people in an inimitable way. On the show, Lorre would get intensely into his role; there's a story that he once became so caught up in acting that he threw his script in the air in the middle of the show, sending all the papers flying and forcing the entire cast to ad lib until the commercial break.

"The Black Cat" is one of the most memorable episodes, giving Lorre a chance to show his sheer emotional range, from genial good-natured to absolutely raging psychotic. Charles is a married man who adopts a black cat. Over time, he becomes increasingly irritable and obsessive about the cat, to the detriment of his marriage and his mind.

You can listen to it online at Internet Archive here (#7) and here (#1). You can read the script here at "Generic Radio Workshop".

Monday, October 07, 2019

The Magus Zoroaster

By the sheer happenstance that sometimes happen, both Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars, which was the last fortnightly book, and Charles Williams's Descent into Hell, quote the same lines of the same poem:

The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.

The lines are from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, Act I. The context:

Venerable mother!
All else who live and suffer take from thee
Some comfort; flowers, and fruits, and happy sounds,
And love, though fleeting; these may not be mine.
But mine own words, I pray, deny me not.

They shall be told. Ere Babylon was dust,
The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest; but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live,
Till death unite them and they part no more;
Dreams and the light imaginings of men,
And all that faith creates or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes.
There thou art, and dost hang, a writhing shade,
'Mid whirlwind-peopled mountains; all the gods
Are there, and all the powers of nameless worlds,
Vast, sceptred phantoms; heroes, men, and beasts;
And Demogorgon, a tremendous gloom;
And he, the supreme Tyrant, on his throne
Of burning gold. Son, one of these shall utter
The curse which all remember. Call at will
Thine own ghost, or the ghost of Jupiter,
Hades or Typhon, or what mightier Gods
From all-prolific Evil, since thy ruin,
Have sprung, and trampled on my prostrate sons.
Ask, and they must reply: so the revenge
Of the Supreme may sweep through vacant shades,
As rainy wind through the abandoned gate
Of a fallen palace.

It may be semiautobiographical; according to Mary Shelley, not long after the traumatic event of her miscarriage, Shelley told her about a vision he had had:

He dreamt that, lying as he did in bed, Edward and Jane came in to him; they were in the most horrible condition; their bodies lacerated, their bones starting through their skin, their faces pale yet stained with blood; they could hardly walk, but Edward was the weakest, and Jane was supporting him. Edward said, “Get up, Shelley, the sea is flooding the house, and it is all coming down.” Shelley got up, he thought, and went to his window that looked on the terrace and the sea, and thought he saw the sea rushing in. Suddenly his vision changed, and he saw the figure of himself strangling me; that had made him rush into my room, yet, fearful of frightening me, he dared not approach the bed, when my jumping out awoke him, or, as he phrased it, caused his vision to vanish. All this was frightful enough, and talking it over the next morning, he told me that he had had many visions lately; he had seen the figure of himself, which met him as he walked on the terrace and said to him, “How long do you mean to be content?” no very terrific words, and certainly not prophetic of what has occurred. But Shelley had often seen these figures when ill....

The Adventurer

Graeme Hunter in Pascal the Philosopher argues that we should avoid taking the wager in Pascal's Wager too literally, and this set me thinking about whether something like its argument could could be formulated using a different metaphor. The following is a crude experiment along these lines, paraphrasing the argument of part of the Infini rien fragment using a different metaphor.


A: God exists or does not. In which realm will you choose to go on your adventure? Reason, you say, does not advise you for or against either. But then you should also say: I cannot condemn the adventurers, because I personally do not know what adventure is worth choosing.

B: I will still condemn Christians for their adventuring -- not for picking their adventure in particular, but for picking any adventure at all. The right thing is not to go on an adventure.

A: You have already set out; it is not a voluntary thing. In dealing with the future, with the uncertain, we do set out, and we ought to do so. Which will you take, then, at the fork in the road? Since we have to choose, let's see what adventure is least in your own interest. You are, after all, seeking not merely truth but also goodness; you are seeking to avoid not merely error but also misery. Like any adventurer, you have two most fundamental resources, your reason and your will. Since an adventure must be chosen, there is no loss to reason in the bare fact of choosing one. But what of will? Suppose the realm in which you take your adventure is that of God existing. If your adventure succeeds, you get the good; if you lose, you did not lose anything. Then give your all to that adventure.

B: Admirable, but even granting that I must take an adventure, perhaps there is in fact much to lose.

A: Let's consider this. You say reason cannot assign greater likeliness to success or failure in this adventure. It is as if, should you have a life for adventuring on each side, it would be evenly balanced. But if success in using your life to adventure led to another life of successful adventure, and failure guaranteed only one life of failed adventure, that seems still to be an adventure worth having. And what if it led to two more lives of successful adventure? Setting out on one adventure must be done, and thus it would be foolish not to prefer to risk one life of failure if, given equal likeliness of failure or success, three lives of success were given if you succeeded. But in reality, successful adventure in the realm of God existing puts eternal life into play. What you risk in your adventure is finite failure; but success in this adventure would be infinite successful adventure. There is nothing to dither about; you must adventure, so so set out on that adventure for which there can be infinite success, and do so with everything you have. You'd be crazy not to do so. Everybody is known to be risking the possibility of failure in an adventure, when the end of that adventure is uncertain. Nor does it violate reason to risk finitely for uncertain success; a limited life of adventure is risked, and success may be supposed equally likely, but success is endless success.

B: Fair enough, but do we have no way of knowing how the adventure will end?

A: Of course, for, contrary to your original idea of lacking reasons that may guide our choice, we really have them: Scripture and the like direct us one way.

B: But this does not help. I cannot move. I must adventure, you say, but I cannot. I set out, but I cannot believe. What do you expect me to do.

A: It is true that you are frozen, but at least be honest and recognize that your feelings, not pure reason, drive this indecision. Reason draws you toward the adventure; since you cannot move, perhaps you should focus less on whether you feel convinced by arguments for God's existence and more on weakening the passions that have immobilized you. You want to adventure but you don't know the way. Then learn from those who have been in your place but now adventure with everything in them. They got there by setting out on the adventure as if they believed: joined in the devotions, practiced in the life, holy water, Mass, and all. This will bring you to believe naturally, and will make you stupid.

B: But that's exactly what I am afraid of!

A: Of course. But why? What will you be losing if you stop trying to feel clever? Your obstacle is your feeling, your desire to be clever and things like that. To overcome your obstacle, weaken what is contributing to it. Let's sum it up. What harm is there in picking this as your adventure? You will learn faithfulness, honesty, humility, gratitude, beneficence, friendship, and the like on an adventure like this. You will shed toxic pleasures, but other joys are available. Going on this adventure, you will do well in life, for those on this adventure do, and you will come to see that your success is in fact certain, and your risk is in fact nothing; you will come to see that you have gone on an adventure whose success was always certain, an adventure of endless success, and that it costs nothing that matters.

B: The idea of an adventure like that is a delightful one.

A: If it pleases you, know that the one who put it forward as part of his own adventure prayed to the one to whom he submits at all, that for your good and his glory, he might take you under his wing.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Fortnightly Book, October 6

For the next fortnight, I'll be (re-)reading the last two novels by Charles Williams, Descent into Hell and All Hallows' Eve.

Descent into Hell was published in 1937; Williams had difficulty finding a publisher for it, because most of the action takes place in the souls of the characters, and it was only T. S. Eliot's respect for Williams that managed to find the novel a home (although Eliot didn't much the like book himself). It is quite literally what it says on the tin: it depicts a soul that is sliding into damnation. It is not a road of great evils and towering wickednesses; facilis descensus Averno, it is banal, and the suffering of hell is a petty suffering, and comes from preferring what one fantasizes to what is real. I think Dorothy Sayers somewhere suggests that the course of Wentworth's damnation was partly suggested to Williams by the Purgatorio, when Dante dreams of the Siren on the Cornice of Sloth:

“I am,” she sang, “I am the pleasing siren,
who in midsea leads mariners astray—
there is so much delight in hearing me.

I turned aside Ulysses, although he
had longed to journey; who grows used to me
seldom departs—I satisfy him so.”

All Hallows' Eve is the last of Williams's novels, published in 1945. It is generally considered Williams's most skillfully written novel, taking the heavily psychological approach of the previous novel but integrated it more completely with narrative episode. It is a ghost story in which nothing is exactly what it seems at first, and is full of nice little turns, like the justly famous, "The two dead girls went together slowly out of the Park."

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars


Opening Passage:

It all seemed so real that I could hardly imagine that it had ever occurred before; and yet each episode came, not as a fresh step in the logic of things, but as something expected. It is in such a wise that memory plays its pranks for good or ill; for pleasure or pain; for weal or woe. It is thus that life is bittersweet, and that which has been done becomes eternal.

Summary: Malcolm Ross, a barrister, finds himself thrust into an extraordinary mystery when Margaret Trelawney, a woman with whom he is in love, asks for his assistance after her father has been apparently assaulted. Mr. Trelawney, an Egyptologist and collector of Egyptian artifacts, is now in some sort of deeply unconscious state and has left strict legal instructions requiring that he be kept in his room and that none of the artifacts in the room be moved. Among those artifacts is a mummified cat and a mummified hand with seven fingers. The mystery deepens when it appears that Trelawney is assaulted again, and when a Mr. Corbeck, an Egyptologist colleague of Trelawney's, visits with a puzzle of his own. As time continues, an increasing amount of evidence points toward Margaret Trelawney, but the deepest level of the mystery is rooted in ancient Egypt, in a woman named Tera, Queen of the Two Egypts, who, according to legend, grew so powerful in all the arts of her day that she conquered Sleep and Will and could command the powers of all the gods by the seven words that she had carved like stars in a special ruby, and who lacked only one more thing to conquer: Death itself.

Stoker locates Tera in the Eleventh Dynasty, when Egypt was ruled out of Thebes, as a daughter of one of the Intefs (Antef, as Stoker writes it); she is a fictional queen. She seems partly based on Cleopatra, but the biggest influence on her depiction seems to be Hatshepsut, from the Eighteenth Dynasty. When Champollion and others finally began to figure out how to read hieroglyphics, Hatshepsut threw them for a considerable loop. She had been thought to be merely a royal consort, but once people learned how to read cartouches, it became clear that Hatshepsut was being given pharaonic honors. At the same time, however, the pictures and statues of her all seemed to be men, including beards, while descriptions of her were always feminine. It all culminated in the discovery of her tomb in 1903, the same year that Jewel was published. Hatshepsut, as it turns out, was one of the greatest Pharaohs in Egyptian history. Ruling women there had been before, but they usually ruled as King's Daughter or King's Mother. Hatshepsut, however, had made herself Pharaoh; the apparently masculine pictures and statues were in reality representing her with the symbols that had become associated with Pharaoh. She showed an extraordinary head for building trading routes, which resulted in a massive expansion of royal wealth, which in turn led to a massive expansion in construction. At some point after her death, her name was removed from a lot of buildings that she had built. This was for a long time thought to have been motivated by an attempt to erase her from history, perhaps because she was a woman; this is likely the source of the idea that Tera had incurred the enmity of the priesthood, which then attempted to erase her from history. This is still an idea one finds, but the attempts at removal were so sporadic and inconsistent, that the most common idea among Egyptologists today seems to be that later Pharaohs were in fact trying to save money by repurposing some of the many, many buildings that had been built by the wealthy Hatshepsut.

Going deeper into the mystery of Tera, Queen of the Egypts, leads the Trelawneys, Ross, Corbeck, and their physician, Doctor Winchester, to embark on the "Great Experiment": the evidence suggests that there may be something to Tera's attempt to conquer death, so can it be completed. As I noted in the Introduction, there are two versions of the novel. In the 1903 version, there is an extra chapter, "Powers -- Old & New", and the Great Experiment ends badly for those involved. In the 1912 version, the "Powers" chapter is removed, and a happier ending is substituted. Having read both, I think that the 1912 version loses nothing for losing the chapter, which consists mostly of speculations by the characters. But the happier ending is a much weaker ending, and somewhat disappointing, because we get a large build-up throughout the book that doesn't really get a proportional pay-off. It's not a bad ending; but I suppose I can express my disappointment with it by saying that it's a short-story ending tacked onto a novel. It's fine on its own, but it can't handle the weight of what came before. The 1903 version, while somewhat abrupt, is a much stronger ending.

It is inevitable in reading a horror novel by Stoker that one will compare it with Dracula, which, without detriment to Jewel is definitely the stronger work. Both novels use technique of slow build-up, and both concern the confrontation of Old Forces with New Civilization. But Dracula is a more active story; the characters do more and suffer more. Suspense-building in Jewel tends to consist of the characters waiting while not knowing what is going on. This would just be a matter of different style for a different tale, except that Jewel doesn't give us characterization to make up for it. Ross is perhaps more interesting than Jonathan Harker, but Margaret is considerably less interesting than Mina Harker (imagine Dracula if Lucy Westenra instead of Mina were the main female protagonist), and Abel Trelawney, Dr. Winchester, and Mr. Corbeck make a far less colorful supporting cast than Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, and the cowboy, Quincey Morris. I think Tera herself holds up very well (she's more interesting as a character than H. Rider Haggard's Ayesha), but because of the structure of the work, we don't get her directly even in the limited amount we get Count Dracula, so she can't contribute as much.

But there's no shame in being less exciting than Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars has plenty of interest on its own, and is especially good if you have a taste for slow-building suspense and an Egyptian flavor of horror story.

Favorite Passage:

"First there is the 'Ka', or 'Double', which, as Doctor Budge explains, may be defined as 'an abstract individuality of personality' which was imbued with all the characteristic attributes of the individual it represented, and possessed an absolutely independent existence. It was free to move from place to place on earth at will; and it could enter into heaven and hold converse with the gods. Then there was the 'Ba', or 'soul', which dwelt in the 'Ka', and had the power of becoming corporeal or incorporeal at will; 'it had both substance and form. . . . It had power to leave the tomb . . .It could revisit the body in the tomb . . . and could reincarnate it and hold converse with it.' Again there was the 'Khu', the 'spiritual intelligence', or spirit. It took the form of 'a shining, luminous, intangible shape of the body.'. . . Then, again, there was the 'Sekhem', or 'power' of a man, his strength or vital force personified. These were the 'Khaibit', or 'shadow', the 'Ren', or 'name', the 'Khat', or 'physical body', and 'Ab', the 'heart', in which life was seated, went to the full making up of a man...."

Recommendation: Recommended, especially if you like your suspense to build slowly to a strong climax; the 1903 version is better for that than the later 1912 version.