Saturday, December 07, 2019

Ambrosius Episcopus

Today is the feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, Doctor of the Church, who is notable among other things for having been baptized, confirmed, ordained, and consecrated bishop all in one week. Tensions were high over Arianism and the see of Mediolanum, or Milan, the second most important see in the West, was empty. Ambrose went to the cathedral to calm the crowd, because he was the Roman governor at the time, but as he was trying to do so, the crowd starting chanting, "Ambrosius Episcopus!" until he fled. It was too late, though; everyone started treating him as the bishop elect and even the Emperor, when he heard about it, assumed that Ambrose was resigning his governorship and sent congratulations to the people of Milan on their excellent choice. Since he was only a catechumen, he had to catch up on his sacraments. He was also the mentor of St. Augustine and quite a few others. From his De officiis (Book I, Chapter 9), the Cicero-inspired handbook he wrote as a guide for the behavior of his clergy:

The philosophers considered that duties were derived from what is virtuous and what is useful, and that from these two one should choose the better. Then, they say, it may happen that two virtuous or two useful things will clash together, and the question is, which is the more virtuous, and which the more useful? First, therefore, "duty" is divided into three sections: what is virtuous, what is useful, and what is the better of two. Then, again, these three are divided into five classes; that is, two that are virtuous, two that are useful, and, lastly, the right judgment as to the choice between them. The first they say has to do with the moral dignity and integrity of life; the second with the conveniences of life, with wealth, resources, opportunities; while a right judgment must underlie the choice of any of them. This is what the philosophers say.

But we measure nothing at all but that which is fitting and virtuous, and that by the rule of things future rather than of things present; and we state nothing to be useful but what will help us to the blessing of eternal life; certainly not that which will help us enjoy merely the present time. Nor do we recognize any advantages in opportunities and in the wealth of earthly goods, but consider them as disadvantages if not put aside, and to be looked on as a burden, when we have them, rather than as a loss when expended.

(The first paragraph is also a good summary of the standard Ciceronian position on officia, often translated 'duties', a position that, despite being historically important and influential, has tended to be lost in most recent virtue ethics; it plays an important role in Hutcheson's argument against Hume's account of virtue, but other than that discussions of it are almost nonexistent in modern versions of virtue ethics.)

Friday, December 06, 2019

Dashed Off XXV

The historical present establishes that we are inclined at times to treat the past (and at times the future) as an as-it-were/as-if present.

"In each error, there is truth, insofar as it is thinkable." Lambert

"...that object can only bejustly called sublime, which in some degree disposes the mind to this enlargement of itself, and gives her a lofty conception of her own powers." John Baillie

People always engage in impetratory prayer conditionally.

genuine distinctions, with examples
(1) purely conceptual: what are distinguished are themselves just conceptual ('a is the same as a')
(2) founded conceptual: what are distinguished are things insofar as they are conceptualized (practical & theoretical intellect)
(3) relative: what are distinguished are things as relative (imaginary numbers: i, -i)
(4) modal: what are distinguished are ways the things themselves are (myself yesterday, myself today)
(5) compositive: what are distinguished are things with respect to parts (overlapping regions)
(6) count: what are distinguished are discrete separables (John & Mary)
-- perhaps there's a need for a distinct capability-based distinction

distinctions allowing
(1) true and proper counting
(2) counting in an extended sense
(3) counting in a metonymic sense
(4) no counting

ens (considered as id quod est)
considered in itself
positively: res
negatively: unum
considered relative to ens
to entia in general: aliquid
to cognitive ens: verum
to appetitive ens: bonum
to cognitive-appetitive ens: pulchrum

tiers of philosophy
(1) nascent
(2) regimented
(3) analyzed
(4) systematized
(5) scholastic
(6) civilizational
(7) hypercivilizational

A cognitive power has a material and a formal object, but in addition there is a penumbra of circumstantial associates, what the object suggests as beyond itself, that of which the object is a sign or an effect.

alethics, ethics, aesthetics

Philosophy as dialectical cannot ignore authority; it must be in dialogue with it.

initiators, ultimate organizables, ultimate organizing principles (laws of nature), attractors

Locomotion simply in itself causes nothing. You always need something else like resistance.

The substance is the final cause of its proper accident, and the way in which it is so makes it like an active cause of it (insofar as the accident receives its actual being from the substance) and also like a material cause for it (insofar as the substance receives the accident).

the ubication of a body

We measure the intensity of sensations only by other sensations in context.

- Mercier on exteriorization of sensations ((1) contrast with muscular sensations; (2) double sensations)

Analytic judgments are not purely explicative because analysis does not leave us where we began.

Mercier's version of the principle of causality: A being whose essence is not its existence necessarily demands for the explanation of its existence a cause which brought it into existence.

The intrinsic possibility of a thing is logically prior to its conceivability, which is as it were an effect and sign (in the mind) of the former.

spontaneous belief arguments (a version of PSR argument, combining PSR with the phenomenon of widespread spontaneous belief) for: external world, other minds, secondary causation

The action of the efficient cause is from another perspective the action of the final cause.

order as a transcendental

aspirational arguments for the existence of God
(1) infinite desires
(2) gratitude
(3) postulates of meaningfulness

knowledge as the final cause of logic

Nothing can obligate except by imposing an end.

one, two, etc., in ____ sense
(1) strictest: separable opponent parts
(2) strict and proper: opponent parts
(3) extended proper: opponent relations *or* nonopponent parts
(4) figurative/improper: likeness to something that is (1), (2), or (3)

ens : unum :: res : verum :: aliquid : bonum :: multitudo : pulchrum

While there are obvious reasons why one, true, and good are primary, there seems to be reason to say that there are infinitely many transcendental attributes of being.

Love is that which makes change possible.

loved/able-to-be-loved as transcendental
(I say able-to-be-love rather than lovable because the latter suggests some particular worthiness to be loved, whereas we are here considering something prior to worthiness)
- obv. this will be closely related to good as a transcendental

the sacramental character as title to participate the Passion of Christ, to suffer with Christ in a sacramental way

People are not saved by invincible ignorance; invincible ignorance is a reason to believe, given other truths, that God will act in mercy by means outside of the ordinary. Even then, divine mercy is not a free pass but the grace for people themselves to receive faith and union with Christ.

One danger to justice is the human habit of trying to satisfy fictional debts rather than the debts that are really owed.

the politics of poshlost

existential operator as definite confirmation (confirming case)

Given an ordered set of yes/no questions, an (im)possible world can be represented as a binary number corresponding to the answers.

extensionality as relative invariance
extensionality as relative indifference

Possible worlds only admit of comparison if the model includes the same propositions (or questions & answers).

believing x in light of y
-- a way of thinking about consistent belief-tracks for doxastic logic

half-belief as nonexclusive belief track

The way things look does not depend only on looking.

To know that one knows requires an account of knowledge; merely to know does not.

pragmatism : alethics :: consequentialism : ethics

arousal theory : music :: Modernism : theology

We experience truth not merely as discovery and as knowledge but also as patrimony.

We know each other by causation, remotion, and eminence.

self-identity as an M! operator: Box(a) is equivalent to (a).

Utilitarians, oddly enough, often underplay urgency of need in evaluating pleasures. (I suspect that they often falsely conflate it with intensity, i.e., they treat it as measured by expected intensity of relief.)

sundbuend, lit. 'sea-dweller', used in plural to mean 'mankind' (soundbands)
gastiberend, lit., 'spirit-bearer, man (ghostbearer)

modality -> mereology -> quantification

Ordination does not make fools into sages, nor idiots into geniuses.

Note that Malebranche (TM 2.4) takes duties to be internal movements / impressions of love.

a possibility: intercession of Church Patient works as occasional causality, intercession of Church Triumphant as instrumental cause

sacraments as instruments of grace (First Way), as special participations of divine energies/transcendentals (Fourth Way), as orderings to divine ends (Fifth Way)

Every sacrament, directly or indirectly, links us by sign to a more full form of being that grace makes available to us, and into which we grow as saints.

Virtues are society-forming.

Knowledge being a formal sign, the theory of signs directly affects epistemology.

Knowledge is the world itself as signified well through itself.

uncanny: "anxious uncertainty about what is real caused by an apparent impossibility" (Windsor)

intentions as actional vs propositional attitudes (cp. Lucy Campbell on why the latter should nto be simply assumed)

To try to do X requires doing something that could apparently be dispositive to doing X.

Every poetic 'school' can be seen as a complex of three categories: primary influences, principles, and social interaction among poets.

The farther one moves from Imagist principles, the less sense free verse makes.

metric line vs verse line vs breath-utterance line

1 - Wherever - Whenever - Whoever - Whatever
0 - Impossible place (nonplace) - nontime - nonperson - impossible thing (nonthing)
TOP - somewhere (indefinite) - sometime - someone - something
BOTTOM - nowhere - no time - no one - nothing
A->0 - A is not anywhere at all - A is never at all - A is no one at all - A is nothing at all
1->A - A is everywhere - A is always - A is everyone - A is everything

the four notes of the Church in Irenaeus: Adv Haer. I.10.1; III.3.1

Priests and deacons perform some of their functions from their own orders and some as human instruments, through their orders, of the bishop.

Benedict XIV takes the traditio instrumentorum in the Decree to the Armenians to be concerned not with the matter proper but with bringing accessory matter into conformity with the Latin rite (De Syn. VIII, X, 8)

Our obligations to the Church are not only the natural obligations of interest but also the moral obligations of honor and conscience, and the sacramental obligations of seal and character.

Hume duplicates of worlds // philosophical zombies

a modal logic as a logic with a phenomenology

time: change measured by change
location: place measured by place
probability: possibility measured by possibility
argument complexity: inference measured by inference

peace as a transcendental attribute of being

'permissibly obligatory' and 'obligatorily permissible' as the key modalities for positive law

the firmitas, utilitas, and venustas of the Church as Temple

Pure alethic modality depends directly on the principle of noncontradiction, not on any possible world semantics. Other modalities can combine the principle of noncontradiction with other principles (but the how of this last should be considered in more detail).

We often treat real and rational relations as opposed categories. But the kinds of dispute arising about them suggest that this opposition is not so straightforward. So what if we think of them dimensionally rather than oppositionally? Everyone agrees that to-another with separation is real relation; everyone agrees that self-identity is rational relation. Take these as extremes near an axis, and take everybody to be disagreeing about the field between them and the location of each distinction in 2D space between them.

"...conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general." MacIntyre

the union of the courtly and the homely in the worship of the Church

same-or-other as transcendental distinction (Aristotle Met IV, 2 1004; cp. Met X, 3 1054)

the association of transcendental distinctions with transcendental attributes (potentiality/actuality with ens; sameness/alterity with unum; one/many with unum, etc.)

Inveni David (Re-Post)

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. This is a slightly revised version of a post from 2011.

Among Thomas Aquinas's extant sermons is one, usually known by the name Inveni David, which is devoted to St. Nicholas of Myra. The exact circumstances of the sermon are unknown, but we know that it was preached in December in Paris either on St. Nicholas Day or around that time. A Tale of Two Wonderworkers (PDF) by Peter Kwasniewski does a good job of giving the background.

The topic of the sermon is that God works wonders in His saints, and St. Thomas treats of this topic by taking a verse from the Psalms about David (a standard verse for saints who are bishops):

I have discovered David my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand will help him, and my arm will strengthen him (Ps. 88:21-22).

Aquinas reads this as giving us a series of wonders that God works in the servants of God -- David in particular, of course, but also any servant of God. And thus Thomas uses it to speak of how St. Nicholas was such a servant. There are four basic parts to the verse, to each of which Aquinas assigns one feature of God's wondrous working in the saints:

(1) I have discovered David my servant: election
(2) with my holy oil I have anointed him: consecration
(3) my hand will help him: execution of duties
(4) and my arm will strengthen him: steadfastness

Thus Thomas will show wondrous election, singular consecration, effective execution of office, and abiding steadfastness in St. Nicholas. Actually, he never gets to the last; the sermon we have stops abruptly and without explanation after (3).

Wondrous Election

I have discovered David my servant, the Psalmist says; what's involved in discovering someone? Discovery, says Thomas, suggests rarity, at least to the extent that it needs to be discovered; it suggests search; it suggests disclosure; and it suggests conviction through experience. All these are elements of God's wonderful choosing of St. Nicholas: the first in that St. Nicholas was virtuous from youth, the second in that the Lord seeks faithful souls to delight in; the third in that Nicholas stood out through his pious affection and profound mercy and compassion; and the fourth in that Nicholas faithfully served the Lord's interests rather than his own. The third is particularly important for Aquinas; St. Nicholas is an example he holds up in more than one place for his compassion and mercy. He clearly likes the story of St. Nicholas finding a way to give gold in secret to the poor virgins so that they could have a dowry without the embarrassment of being beholden to him for it. Notably Thomas also uses his discussion of Nicholas's election to attack abuses by the clergy.

Singular Consecration

According to legend, St. Nicholas was elevated to the position of bishop by God Himself. The old bishop had died with no one obvious as a replacement. Those who were trusted with choosing the successor had a dream one night that they should consecrate as bishop the first man who walked through the door of the Church that morning. This happened to be Nicholas, who was at the time a young priest and a newcomer to Myra. He took considerable convincing, but eventually he was installed as bishop. This is perhaps subtly in the background here, although Aquinas doesn't mention it explicitly here (he does explicitly mention it elsewhere, so he knew of the story). Instead he focuses on the phrase with my holy oil I have anointed him. Oil has four uses, says Aquinas, all of which are suggested in this context.

First, oil is used for healing. Thus oil is an image of God's healing grace, and we see the operation of such grace in such a holy man as Nicholas.

Second, oil is used for lighting. To this extent it symbolizes the learning of wisdom, which is why it is associated with prophecy and illumination.

Third, oil is used for flavoring. In this sense it is an image of spiritual joy; just as a sprinkling of oil makes food taste better, so does a sprinkling of spiritual joy make good works easier. It is in this sense that oil is associated with priesthood.

Fourth, oil is used for softening and smoothing. Understood in this way it signifies mercy and kindness of heart which, of course, St. Nicholas had in astounding measure. Thus, says Thomas Aquinas, just as oil spreads itself out, so does mercy, and just as oil coats things, so mercy coats every good work. He then has a very interesting passage:

You ought to consider that in the future, according to the merits of graces the evidence of rewards will appear in the glorified bodies of the saints, and that even in this life the signs of their affection appear. This is evident in the case of blessed Francis, where the signs of the passion of Christ became visible, so vehemently was he affected by the passion of Christ. In blessed Nicholas's case, signs of mercy appeared when "his tomb sweated oil," thus indicating that he was a man of great mercy.

The linking of the two extremely popular saints, Saint Francis and Saint Nicholas, is rather interesting in itself, since, while Nicholas founded no order, there are nonetheless a great many similarities between the two, as regards their place in the Church and what they have left for posterity. It has also not gone without notice that here Thomas the Dominican goes out of his way to mention the stigmata of Saint Francis, which has suggested to some that his audience may have been Franciscan. Saint Nicholas was a favored saint of the Dominicans, playing a large role in early Dominican spiritual life, and thus the linking here strongly indicates that Aquinas wants to suggest something about the two orders taken together.

In any case, Thomas holds that this fourth signification of oil is why oil is often associated with kingship. And thus in these four ways, divine grace, prophetic wisdom, priestly gladness, and kingly compassion, God works wonders in His saints.

Effective Execution

My hand shall help him. The hand symbolizes God's strength, and Thomas suggests four ways in which God's strength is found to operate in saints like Nicholas. First, God drew Nicholas to Himself and away from evil. Second, God guided Nicholas as He does all the just. Third, He gave him strength and comfort. And fourth, because Nicholas showed exquisite mercy, God worked miracles through him.

And this is how the sermon ends, abruptly but memorably:

It was mercy that made blessed Nicholas an extraordinary man, and the Lord strengthened him even unto everlasting life. May He lead us there, who lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit, &c.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Who Walk'd Woe's Depths

by St. John Henry Newman

O Father, list a sinner's call!
Fain would I hide from man my fall—
But I must speak, or faint—
I cannot wear guilt's silent thrall:
Cleanse me, kind Saint!

"Sinner ne'er blunted yet sin's goad;
Speed thee, my son, a safer road,
And sue His pardoning smile
Who walk'd woe's depths, bearing man's load
Of guilt the while."

Yet raise a mitigating hand,
And minister some potion bland,
Some present fever-stay!
Lest one for whom His work was plann'd
Die from dismay.

"Look not to me—no grace is mine;
But I can lift the Mercy-sign.
This wouldst thou? Let it be!
Kneel down, and take the word divine,

Off Cape St. Vincent.
December 14, 1832.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Burning Coal

The Church Fathers often interpret the "burning coal" of Isaiah 6:7 as a type of the Eucharist; for instance, it is a common allusion in Eastern liturgies that are influenced by the Liturgy of St. James, in which the priest says,

The Lord will bless us, and make us worthy with the pure touchings of our fingers to take the live coal, and place it upon the mouths of the faithful for the purification and renewal of their souls and bodies, now and always.

There are many other examples. So I've been thinking about how one would interpret the vision of Isaiah 6 if one took this seriously and held that it was a vision of the spiritual nature of the Eucharist. A few first loose thoughts about this.

THRONE AND TEMPLE: The Eucharist occurs in the presence of God (Throne) and in His Church (Temple).

SERAPHIM: Note that the Liturgy of St. James holds that the priest is serving in the Eucharist as the Seraphim before the Throne.

TRISAGION: The Eucharist expresses the Trinitarian holiness of the Lord and His holy presence among His people. The Trisagion is of course sung in Mass.

SHAKING AND SMOKE: The consecration is a massive event, in some way reaching to the foundations, and overflowing with prayer.

WOE TO ME: The faithful before the Eucharist are humbled to contrition, recognizing themselves as unholy and from an unholy people.

BURNING COAL: The Eucharist is brought to the penitent faithful. Notice that it is not brought until they recognize their unholiness and unworthiness to be before God.

TOUCH: By the Eucharist, inquity is taken away and sin is forgiven and the faithful are made holy.

VOCATION: Having received, we also receive our mission: Because of the Eucharist, we are asked to go, and having received it, we are made ready to volunteer.

GO AND TELL: And we are sent out with a message of coming judgment that will not be heard.

HOW LONG: And this will continue until judgment comes.


Today is the feast of St. John Damascene, Doctor of the Church. From Part II of his Treatise on Holy Images:

The wicked serpent of old, Beloved, I mean the devil—is wont to wage war in many ways against man, who is made after God’s image, and to work his destruction through opposition. In the very beginning he inspired man with the hope and desire of becoming a god, and through that desire he dragged man down to share the death of the brute creation. He has enticed man also by shameful and brutal pleasures. What a contrast between becoming a god and feeling brutal lust. And again, he led man into infidelity, as the royal David says: ‘The fool said in his heart there is no God.’ At one time he has brought man to worship too many gods, at another not even the true God, sometimes demons, and again, the heavens and the earth, the sun and moon and stars, and the rest of creation, wild beasts and reptiles. It is as bad to refuse due honour where honour is due, as to give it where it is not due. Again, he has taught some to call the uncreated god evil, and has deceived others by making them recognise God, who is good by nature, as the author of evil. Some he has deceived by the misconception of one nature and one substance of the Godhead; some he has induced to honour three natures and three substances; some one substance in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity; some two natures and two substances.

But the truth, taking a middle course, sweeps away these misconceptions and teaches us to acknowledge one God, one nature in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Evil is not a being, but an accident, a certain conception, word, or deed against the law of God, taking its origin in this conception, speech, or doing, and ending with it. The truth proclaims also that in Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, there are two natures and one person. Now, the devil, the enemy of the truth and of man’s salvation, in suggesting that images of corruptible man, and of birds and beasts and reptiles, should be made and worshipped as gods, has often led astray not only heathens but the children of Israel. In these days he is eager to trouble the peace of Christ’s Church through false and lying tongues, using divine words in favour of what is evil, and striving to disguise his wicked intent, and drawing the unstable away from true and patristic custom. Some have risen up and said that it was wrong to represent and set forth publicly for adoration the saving wounds of Christ, and the combats of the saints against the devil. Who with a knowledge of divine things and a spiritual sense does not perceive in this a deception of the devil? He is unwilling that his shame should be known and that the glory of God and of His saints should be published.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Two New Poem Drafts


The autumn leaves are falling brown and dusty on the road,
the winter chill is beating like a hammer on the brain,
the sun perhaps forever-lost is hiding, veiled by cloud.
A dull and aching boredom rules, worse than any pain,
and time --
the word is inexact, but we may call it 'time' --
time is bare, oppressive;
it smothers the sublime.

We itch to walk and wander,
inquire, think, and ponder --
we itch but do not scratch,
for where is there to journey
when the sameness never ceases
(brown below and gray above)
and life in bits and pieces
knows not peace nor joy nor love?
The world is drained of every color,
fading is its life and light,
and all without reprieve await
an all-elusive night.

Yet in a little building, quiet and tucked away,
a little light of day
is through the dismal breaking,
only a little ray
but a beam of sunlight pure
like water to the thirsty and to the ill a cure:
a little bread, unobtrusive,
of infinite grace diffusive
a little wine, a drop upon the tongue,
ever ancient, ever young,
but the bread is living bread
and the wine is holy vine
and they who see and taste that supersubstantial sign --
the word is inexact, but call it living sign --
are abundant with renewal that can resurrect the dead.

The autumn leaves are falling brown and dusty on the road,
the winter chill is beating like a hammer on the brain,
yet sublimely, and how finely, like fair face behind a veil,
with enigmatic smile lives the lamb that had been slain.


Sing the stars that wander,
nomads of the heavens,
starlike planets spinning
through the darkling sky,
Sol their guiding parent;
out to clouds of comets
wildly they wander.

Mercurial in changing,
running through its courses,
bathing in the sunlight,
Mercury the fleeting
never stays its flowing
'round the burning sun.

Venus with its veiling
covered with the cloudbanks
follows after second,
sister of the Earth;
slowly it is turning,
pale and white its cover,
as 'round the sun it wanders.

Earth the third is splendid,
rich with flowing water,
sapphire of the planets,
fairest of them all;
and dancing with its partner,
the Moon like to a planet,
tide and time its tally,
is waltzing in a dance.

The Pale Bright Heavens

by Clark Ashton Smith

From the sad leaves withdrawn,
Remote, estranged and cold,
Forgetful autumn's gold
Alone abides in some December dawn.

Tearless and clear and chill
As eyes that have forgot
Far love, or find it not,
The pale bright heavens arch the barren hill.

Now, in this afternoon
Enchanted, blue and brief,
The year has lost its grief
In valleys mute below the spectral moon.

For here no mourning-dove
Laments the season flown:
On love that wanders lone
Falls the blue balm of silence from above.

For here no zephyr grieves
To tell the year's dead dream;
And down the pine-lulled stream
Lost memories drift and loiter with the leaves.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Abyss & Sea 6


Beyond the door was a long narrow stairway, and at the bottom a locked wooden door of thick oak and iron. Disan put his hand on it and closed his eyes. Deep within it he felt the semblance of life.

"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?" he said.

"I uphold them, O king," the door said in a voice like creaking oak.

"Then open for me."

There was a rustling in the lock like whispers, or like a distant scratching, the knob turned, and the door opened. There was another long stairway with a door at the bottom, although this door was unlocked. Beyond that door was a long hallway extending both to the left and to the right with several doors widely spaced from each other; there were torches along the hallway that sprang to light when he stepped into it. He considered trying one of the doors at random, but then the door at the end of the hallway, facing the corridor, caught his eye. It was not of wood but of an exquisitely sculpted iron. The picture it displayed was of khalkythra, its lionlike body leaping upward, twelve wings spread widely, its long-snouted head, reminiscent of a crocodile turned to the right. There was a diamond of fine water, about the size of your thumbnail, twinkling in its eye. Perhaps most remarkable of all was that the dark iron had been polished or sealed by some means so as to have a kind of rainbowy sheen in its darkness, much as silk that is dyed Sorean black has an iridescence in its depths, to suggest the many-colored brilliance of the original beast. As he approached it, he already felt a vitality and vigilance emanating from it. It was not an ordinary living door, such as one might find in every neyat, fortress, and palace in the Great Realm. It was a guardian door, made not merely with the finest smithcraft but also with unimaginably many layers of chantments, and it was vested in the power and authority of kings. He put out his hand to open it, but found he could not even reach his hand far enough to take hold of the doorknob.

"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?" Disan asked it.

The guardian door spoke not in a wooden, creaking voice like that of the first door, but in a strong and mellifluous one. "I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea, husband of Baia and son of Rezan the son of Belan," it said.

"Then open for me," said Disan, not expecting a result.

There was a pause, and then the door said, "You are known to me, anointed king, and you may pass," and swung open.

The door was a side door in the corner of a great hall, which was brightly lit as if in sunlight, although no source of light could be seen. The floor was lightly coated with dust. The vault above was painted deep blue and painted with twelve large twelve-pointed golden stars arranged in a long oval. The decoration on the wall was more stylistic and geometrical than was common in the parts of the palace Disan knew.

"I must have passed out of the Khalkythra Palace into one of the other parts of the Porphyry Mountain," Disan said aloud to himself. He did not say it very loudly, so he was startled by the return of a slight echo.

"Apparently this room needs carpets and tapestries," he said. The hall echoed 'carpets and tapestries' back to him, clearly and distinctly enough that he found it unsettling, and walked, footfall echoing the entire way, to the great archway at one end of the hall. There was only another hall beyond it, but this hall had no echo at all. From there he passed through several more archways and several more large, long halls, each of which much like the previous and each of which had an open archway into another, until he finally came to a hall that had archways on all four sides; instead of continuing through as he had been doing, he turned into one of the side rooms. It too opened into another room, and that into another, but these rooms were smaller and more interesting. Sometimes the walls were painted with various designs or scenes, sometimes they had mosaics, sometimes they had a sort of embroidered wall fabric glued or nailed to them, and sometimes they had hanging tapestries. The painted scenes were faded enough that he could not always make out what they were, and the wall fabric had been hanging long enough to look shabby and faded, but the mosaics and the tapestries were truly remarkable. One room that Disan particularly liked had a fountain in it, sculpted like dolphins, and mosaics of fish on the walls done so skillfully with small stones that they almost seemed real. Another, this time with a statue of what Disan guessed to be High King Ardalan, had a mosaic on its walls that made it at first seem when you entered the room that the walls were growing with ivy. The tapestries were mostly geometrical or floral, although very brilliantly colored, the chantments with which they had been woven having preserved them through the years; but one very beautiful scenic one showed Emdalan on his flying wooden horse, a vivid blue sky around him and a mountain scene below.

Eventually the rooms came to an end. The last room, larger than the others, had no decoration on its walls at all, but in the middle of it was a large pyramid and humaniform statue, both of gold, and somewhat oddly situated with respect to each other. They had something of the stylized character of all the art that Disan had seen, but after walking around it, his footprints very clear in the dust, Disan guessed that it was supposed to represent Trethin flattening the land around the Porphyry Mountain. They were not very interesting. On the wall on the other side, however, there were two guardian doors, and they were very interesting.

One was of gold and deeply engraved with the figure of a ruby-eyed phoenix bursting upward from the flames. The background was yellow-gold, but the embossing had been done in such a way that the relief was somehow more reddish, and seemed to flicker as you moved. The other was silver and embossed with an emerald-eyed crowned serpent rising from grass, or perhaps waves; the serpent itself was shiniest silver, but the spiky grass or waves in the relief had a patina of blue-green. The patina had perhaps once been lighter, but the style of the door was very old, and despite its preserving chantments had probably darkened through time.

He tried the golden door first. "Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"

"I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea, son of Rezan the son of Belan, who shall surely be the first of a great and royal house," it said. It spoke in a rich, warm voice, like you might expect of sunlight over the hills.

"Then open for me."

But the door responded as he had expected the iron door to respond. "O king, anointed you may be, great you may be, but I am sealed by the order of the High King Endaran, and none may open me who is not High King." Disan tried to recall what he could about Endaran, but despite knowing all of the genealogies of the all the royal houses of the Great Realm, in the moment could remember no more than that there had been two or three of that name, the most recent one many generations back.

He then tried the silver door. "Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"

The silver door spoke in a cool and ringingly clear voice, like you might expect of moonlight shining on a lake. "I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea, husband of Baia and son of Rezan the son of Belan, who shall surely be the last of his great and royal house."

Disan paused, but did not know what to make of the comment. So he continued as before: "Then open for me."

There was a pause, and then a sound like a bell ringing in the distance, and the door said, "You are known to me, great and anointed king, and you have long been expected. You may pass."

The room beyond was not a room, or at least not a room in the ordinary sense. It was dark, and at first the only light that could be seen was that which came through the door, which did not last long, because the guardian door swung closed behind him, leaving him in the dark. The air was cool and humid. As Disan's eyes adjusted, he found that it was not wholly dark; there was everywhere a kind of bluish light, very soft, like moonlight filtering subtly through a cave. He was standing on a sandy shore, and a large lake quietly rippled up the sand. Across the lake, he could see the dark form of an island. There was a wharf nearby, and tied to the iron ring of the wharf was a boat, about the size of a rowboat. Who knows how long the boat had been there, but when Disan put his hand upon it, he felt the semblance of life within it.

"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"

"I uphold them, O Disan, King of Sorea," said the boat.

"Can you bear me across the lake to the island?" he asked.

"I can bear you," said the boat, "for I was born in long years past for this very bearing."

So Disan climbed into the boat and untied it from the iron ring, although the rope was rotted enough that it might have broken at a pull. The boat began to glide along the surface of the lake, the water rippling out from it with liquid sound and stirring up a luminescence like that which sailors call 'fire of the sea'. As the boat moved, Disan remembered a few things about the last Endaran. His father had been very long-lived, so he had come to the High Kingship late in life. Disan could not remember any monuments built by him, nor any great feats accomplished by him; he had had the kind of reign that historians pass over as uneventful and died of old age in bed perhaps seven or eight centuries before. The golden door had been sealed a long time.

The boat slid onto the sand of the island and Disan disembarked. The island rose steadily up; it was mostly gravel under the feet, and there was a path leading up to the top, where there was a kind of forum surrounded by seven large columns. The columns were strangely proportioned, squatting around with no obvious purpose. As he walked to the center of the forum, the gravel crunching under foot, the wind seemed to pick up. At least, the sound of the wind grew; Disan felt nothing, but there was a strange huffing, gusting sound, like wind blowing in and out through several holes. Then he realized that the columns were growing in height; then he realized that the squat columns were hollow and that what he was actually seeing in the bluish light was the rising of pale white columns from inside the squat columns; then he realized that the columns were not rising straight up but were swaying like supple trees in a gentle wind, or, better yet, like grass in a river current. They grew taller and taller, like tall trees, but Disan only understood what he was seeing when the lightly swaying column in front of him opened its eyes and unfurled its hood.

It was a serpent. But it was a serpent like nothing Disan had ever seen, or indeed had ever imagined, a great, gleaming white, cobra-like serpent as large as a tree, looking at him with serpentine eyes and flicking out a vast forked tongue as it swayed. There were seven of them, one to his front, three to his left, three to his right, each large enough that it could crush him into nothing, but the one in front larger than the rest. And he knew what the sound of the gusting was, for gusting is the sound of a serpent's hiss when the serpent is as tall as a house.

Disan went white, and it seemed as if all of his breath had left him. His hand reached instinctively for a sword that was not there, because who belts on their sword for a nighttime walk in a palace? But he stood his ground and said, trying to make his voice not shake, "Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?"

There was a long pause in which Disan could feel his heart beating in his ears. Then the Queen Serpent spoke with a voice like a hale old woman's, if a hale old woman could speak from every direction at once: "My sisters and I uphold them, O Disan, of Sorea sovereign, but the question that concerns us is this: Do you?"

"I uphold them," said Disan, relaxing a little.

"We shall see," said the Queen Serpent. "Men are unsteady creatures and their words do not always seal a bond. But we have waited for you for centuries and we are glad that you have finally come, for we have long wished to flee the flood of sorrow that from the future pours, and our nightmares are filled with the abominable abyss."

"Why have you been waiting for me?"

"The Powers of the world set us a mission, and we sealed it with a vow, that we would show you a sight and give you a word."

He opened his mouth to ask a question, but found himself, to his great surprised, in another place entirely, looking down at himself. Elea and Antaran were there, too. It was the evening before.

The other Disan said, "You need have no fear on my part, Princess."

The High King lifted a finger, speaking to the other Disan. "Not a word of it unless Elea has cut off all possibility of eavesdropping." The other Disan nodded, and Antaran went on, "Well, we will not keep you from your evening rest. No doubt it has been a long day."

The Princess, who had been gently beaming at the other Disan the whole time, said, "I will need to open a doorway for you in the shield," and she rose. The other Disan went with her to the door. Disan tried to follow them, but found he could not move. When the Princess returned, she sat next to Antaran and leaned against him. "I wish we could do without him."

"We need him," said Antaran. "We always have. He suggested Disan specifically, and I have argued from the beginning that he was the best option."

"I do not trust him. I can catch no glimpse of his mind."

"He is an anointed king; you cannot see into my mind, either, nor Zalan's, nor the mind of any other anointed king or queen."

"I still would prefer that the whole plan were not shaped by your having a crush on your childhood friend."

Antaran, who had been smiling and looking abstractedly into the distance, looked angrily at her at this. Elea smiled sweetly back at him, but he did not soften.

"Do we need ships or do we not?"

"As you know...," Elea began, but Antaran cut her off.

"Do we need ships or do we not?" he said again, louder.

She sighed. "We do."

"Can we trust Andra to deliver what we need?"

"We cannot."

"Did he not suggest Disan to begin with?"

"He did."

"Then stop trying to provoke me. Disan will come through. We will open the gate, we will conquer the world, you and I will marry, and all will be well. The days of the Orikhalh Tablets will be done, and a new age of progress and light will begin, with you, me, and Disan shaping it to our wishes."

"I just wish," Elea said, "that we could be more sure. He is an enigma. He does not react to things like I expected him to act. He is the only king who has seen the world outside the Great Realm, and there is something strange about him. And he did not marry into royalty or nobility, but he married that common Sorean girl."

"Have you seen common Sorean girls?" said Antaran. "I might marry one myself, if there were any to be had." Now it was Elea's turn to look at him angrily, but Antaran only laughed at her. "Besides, Soreans are strange, anyway, and from what I understand, she's a shipwright's daughter, and you know they have the odd custom of treating shipwrights like nobility. And even if it weren't so, we are building a new age; old ways are behind us and an enlightened future ahead."

"It is not the deviation from custom, but the inexplicability of the deviation...," Elea began, but Antaran cut her off with a wave of his hand.

"You are simply making things up, now," he said. "I've known Disan a long time; he is exactly the kind of man we need with us." He picked her up and slid her so that she was sitting on his knee. "And he agrees, so your grousing is pointless. Let's have no more wasted time."

Everything went dark, and Disan's eyes had to adjust again to the bluish light that lit the lake. The great serpents swayed around him.

"How could you see that?" Disan asked. "They had said that Elea's pendant prevented eavesdropping."

"Your kind are a foolish kind. You see up and down, so you put a ceiling and a floor. You see left, right, forward, backward, so you put walls. But you do not see before and you do not see after, so you do not put walls before or after to block the eye that can see through time. The High King and the Princess toy with things they do not comprehend. We were brought here long centuries ago to have this place as a refuge from the Court of Night. In the early days your kings sought our counsel, and were made the wiser for it. But you are the first king who has come in many generations, and within the walls of the Porphyry Mountain the folly of your people has brought an abomination even the Court of Night feared. We have hidden from its ever-seeking thought for the sake of our vow, but we are tired, my sisters and I, and we have one last word to give before we can flee to safety. We give it to you now. Disan, of Sorea sovereign, hear the word of the Powers that guide the world: The storm of judgment draws near; the earth will resound with its fury. You must build a fleet, not for the work of the abomination, but that all will not be lost when the folly of your people has opened the door that must not be opened. Thus speak the Powers that guide the world, and our vow is fulfilled."

"What does that mean?" asked Disan, baffled.

"The meaning is irrelevant," said the Queen Serpent. "The word has been given."

"But how can I make use of it if I do not understand it?"

"Your understanding is irrelevant," the Queen Serpent replied. "Our vow is fulfilled, and we may leave."

The swaying of the seven sisters grew more pronounced and there was unsettling intensity in their bright blue-glinted eyes as they looked down at him. Disan began to think that perhaps he should not press his luck. He bowed, turned, and walked back the way he came. But at the edge of the forum, a thought made him stop and turn again. The seven sisters were still swaying, their hoods wide, looking at him with their utterly inhuman eyes.

"You have been here a long time," he said. "Do you know what is behind the golden door?"

"Yes." Disan waited for more, but no more was given, so he went on.

"Is it a secret that I can know?"

"Every door opens to a future of some kind. Behind the golden door is a great future indeed, but one that will now never come to pass."

"Is it the door which should not be opened?"

"You do not even know enough of what you speak to know the question you must ask. When your High King opens the door that must not be opened, every door will close, every future vanish away. The golden door is but one of infinite possibilities that were given to your people, but your people were fools and it is now a possibility that no longer matters. And you, too, are foolish for trying to know a future that can never be. Delay us no more."

Disan went down to the boat and crossed the lake again to the wharf. The silver guardian door stood silently open for him. He went through it and looked long at the unopenable golden door, then went back through the rooms, and through the long halls, and through the echo hall to the iron guardian door, and up the stairs to collapse on his bed, angry and exasperated at the seemingly endless riddles. But he was exhausted, as well, and soon was asleep.

When he awoke in the morning, he looked behind the tapestry again, but there was no door there.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Fortnightly Book, December 1

I've gone back and forth, forth and back, over what to do for this next fortnightly book, and I've finally settled on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The book was published in April of 1939, and the edition I have, from my grandparents' library, was published in September of 1939. (It was the best selling novel of the year; the September printing is the ninth.) I'll have to be careful with it; the book isn't in bad shape, but eighty years inevitably gives a book like this, published more for a wide audience than with any fancy binding, a bit of a workout. Looking at the inscriptions, it is from my grandmother's side of the library, and ultimately from my great aunt. There is an inscription, "Read 9/12/63", which I'm pretty sure is in my grandfather's hand.

The book was written while Steinbeck was working for the San Francisco News; while there he took an interest in the stories of displaced migrants; it started out as a series of articles in 1936 about such migrant workers, for which Steinbeck had to do a significant amount of background research. When writing the novel, Steinbeck couldn't settle on a title for it; eventually his wife, Carol, proposed the phrase from The Battle Hymn of the Republic that stuck.

With classics I often look to see if there is an old-time radio adaptation, and it turns out there is one: NBC University Theater did an adaptation in 1949; there is also, of course, the 1940 movie, which regularly makes lists of the top American films of all time. If I have time, I'll pull in one or both.

On Levy on Virtue-Signalling

Neil Levy has an article on virtue-signalling at Aeon. Unfortunately, it is a really good example of what not to do in analyzing terms from popular discourse.

'Virtue-signalling' has only been around a few years. It's usually traced to James Bartholomew's 2015 The awful rise of 'virtue-signalling' at The Spectator (which Levy can't even be bothered to link). Despite Levy's claim that he did not in fact invent it, this is not obvious; while you can find very occasional uses of phrases like 'virtue-signalling' prior to Bartholomew, it's not always clear that they are using the phrase in the same sense as Bartholomew, and they are in any case sporadic enough that there's not really any reason to deny that he invented, or at least independently invented, the term as it is used today. What is certainly true is that Bartholomew is a major dispersion point for the term as it is currently used, since his article was widely shared across social media and he wrote a book on it.

There are a number of potential pitfalls we have to be careful about from the beginning. Given that it has so widely been used as an insult, we have to be very careful, because people in general tend not to be very accurate in the use of insult phrases. And just as I've noted that popular arguments tend to be summaries of argument-families rather than precise arguments, so too the details of terms arising in popular usage will often be fuzzy. In particular, the meaning is better seen by judicious consideration of common or paradigmatic cases rather than any strict definition laying down a precise boundary in a classification. It would not, I think, surprise anyone that there is a lot of gray area with this term -- things that could be considered virtue-signalling that are not necessarily bad, things that may or may not be virtue-signalling, etc. It's the central and obvious cases that are determinative. Bartholomew treats virtue-signalling as a kind of advertising:

Go to a branch of Whole Foods, the American-owned grocery shop, and you will see huge posters advertising Whole Foods, of course, but — more precisely — advertising how virtuous Whole Foods is. A big sign in the window shows a mother with a little child on her shoulders (aaaah!) and declares: ‘values matter.’

Notably Levy does not mention advertising once. Contrary to what Levy claims, Bartholomew does not say that virtue signalling is driven by "vanity and self-aggrandisement"; what he actually says is that in certain cases in which you virtue-signal by expressing what you hate, using your hating the right people or things to show how good you are, if you were to say directly what you meant, "your vanity and self-aggrandisment would be obvious", just as with certain blatant kinds of value advertisement like in the Whole Foods example.

There is a more important potential pitfall, and it is unfortunately one into which Levy directly jumps. You can't assume, as you can with technical and semi-technical terms in academic fields, that a term in popular parlance is being used literally. It is quite clear from the tone of Bartholomew's article, and this is also clear from common usage, that it is at least broadly ironic. The label may be 'virtue-signalling', but you can't assume that every sense of 'signalling' is relevant, and you can't assume that it literally has much to do with virtue itself. What Levy does in the course of his article is unfortunately an easily identifiable mistake: he argues that an insulting label actually indicates a good thing because if you read the label hyper-literally rather than sarcastically or ironically, it would describe something that could be considered good in some cases. Because of this mistake, we get drivel like this in an argument that signalling is important to moral life, as if it were relevant to the subject:

Signalling is very common in nature. The peacock’s tail, for instance, is a signal of evolutionary fitness. It’s what biologists call an honest signal, because it’s hard to fake. It takes a lot of resources to build a tail like that, and the better the signal – the bigger and brighter the tail – the more resources must have been devoted to it.

*Gasp* Who would have thought that useful signals of some form or other exist? That changes everything! It is also, of course, not obviously relevant; Levy nowhere shows that virtue-signalling is a way to signal evolutionary fitness, or that it is even signalling in a relevantly similar sense. Now, of course, some analogy of some kind is entirely reasonable to expect, but what one needs is exactly what Levy never bothers to give: the account of what kind of analogy, on what grounds, is in play. For instance, if we simply took Levy's argument as it stands, it would imply that advertisements fulfill a "central function" of moral discourse; this commercial signals to you that State Farm cares, caring is a moral notion, therefore selling State Farm insurance and the like is fulfilling a central function of moral discourse. It's not clear what "central function" could even mean in this kind of context, and it seems unlikely that anyone not thoroughly infected by a consumerist culture would even imagine such a thing. But there's no real difference between this kind of argument and Levy's; an original and recurring context for applying the term 'virtue-signalling' is advertisement, as in, for example, trying to convince people that virtuous people are the kind of people who buy and sell expensive all-natural artisanal cheese.

Levy's argument is in fact a mighty game of leap-frog: we start with signalling in nature (for reasons unknown, but my guess is that it is supposed to make more plausible the "central" in the "central function"), then to the more limited technical meaning in cognitive science of religion (overlooking, as far as I can see, that 'signalling' in this sense is an after-the-fact analysis of effect, not something that is always deliberately or even half-consciously done the way virtue-signalling would have to be for the term to serve the function it does -- the claim is not that hermits necessarily live the eremitic life because it signals that they are holy, but rather that people find hermits impressive and memorable because they take the costliness and apparent sincerity of hermits as a sign or signal of holiness), then to saying that religious signalling of this sort is a kind of moral signalling (in a broad sense of the term), then from 'moral signalling' to 'virtue signalling'. Every hop in this chain of lilypads is thoroughly problematic. Going backwards, we have no reason to think from the behavior of the terms that every kind of moral signalling in any sense of the term is virtue-signalling; while the capacity of religious activities to be taken as a sign of goodness can be called 'moral signalling' in some sense of the term, this is in a very broad sense, and it seems to require a different action-structure than virtue-signalling, since it is primarily about how others interpret your actions rather than what you yourself are trying to signal by them; the use of the term 'signalling' in the cognitive science of religion does not have any straightforward association with the kind of explicit moral advertising associated with the term 'virtue-signalling'; and the fact that signals are common in nature tells us nothing about whether virtue-signalling is itself good, or fulfills any central function of moral discourse, or indeed is signalling in anything more than a very loosely overlapping sense of the term.

One of the notable problems with Levy's hyper-literal reading is that he takes 'virtue-signalling' to mean that there is some particular kind of independently recognizable virtue that the virtue-signaler is trying to display. As far as I can see, this is an illegitimate assumption. Doritos advertising that it is really committed to gay marriage by selling special Pride bags is not identifying some particular virtue and then displaying that it has it; it is a corporation, it doesn't have that level of coherent self-reflection. Doritos executives are signalling support of gay marriage because they are trying to get in on a (potentially profitable) thing by a symbolic action that Doritos can treat, and that Doritos executives hope others treat, as itself a virtue stand-in. As Bartholomew puts it (and notably Levy again completely ignores it, despite the fact that structurally it is the core of Bartholomew's article):

No one actually has to do anything. Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs. There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition.

The 'virtue' in 'virtue-signalling' is not about virtues; virtue-signalers aren't displaying their virtues, nor even necessarily faking the display of virtues like an ordinary hypocrite (although it seems common enough that people take virtue-signalers to be doing so because they are hypocrites). The whole point of the term (and actual usage seems to continue Bartholomew's point here) is that the 'virtue' in 'virtue-signalling' is in fact nothing more than the signalling. It is not costly; it is not credibility-enhancing. It is simply assuring yourself or others, directly or indirectly, that you are on the virtuous side as if self-identification as virtuous were the same as being virtuous, treating the advertising of values as proof that you live by those values. It is, as I said, an ironic label.

[ADDED LATER (almost immediately afterward, in fact): As a minor side note, here's a sign of just how much this term has struck a chord. When I started writing this post, I opened Twitter and searched 'virtue-signalling' to refresh my sense of the common usage. (Unsurprisingly for Twitter, most uses were cases of it being used as an insult without further explanation.) In the little more than half an hour it took to write this post, Twitter added over eighty new tweets with the phrase.]