Saturday, February 08, 2020

A Saint Called 'Fortunate'

Today is the memorial of St. Josephine Bakhita. She was born in the Sudan in the late nineteenth century, but around the age of seven or so was kidnapped by slave traders. We do not know her name before that time because after several years of hard slavery, she herself could not remember it. The slave traders had given her the nickname, Bakhita, which means something like 'Lucky' or 'Fortunate'. She was bought by the Italian Vice Consul, who eventually had to flee the country due to a revolution, which brought her to Italy. They had Bakhita stay at the convent of the Canossian Sisters until they could make some arrangements, but when they tried to reclaim her, she refused to leave. The case went to court, but the court ruled for her: slavery was illegal in Italy, and although it had been common in the Sudan, strictly speaking it had been illegal there, too, so she was free. Bakhita chose to stay with the Canossians; she was baptized and took the name Josephine Margaret Fortunata, and was eventually assigned to the convent at Schio, just north of Vicenza. She was their cook and porter for several decades, where the convent was located. She died on February 8, 1947. The Italian locals took up her canonization cause almost immediately, and she was eventually canonized in 2000.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Ethics and Reasoning II (Mill)

As noted before, there are many different kinds of utilitarianism that we could have. All forms of utilitarianism are based on some version of the principle of utility, which holds that things are good insofar as they contribute to happiness and bad insofar as they detract from happiness. The principle of utility is often called the Greatest Happiness Principle, because of its slogan form: Greatest happiness for the greatest number. This is a handy formula, because it helps us think more clearly about the different kinds of utilitarianism you can have, by asking questions about the parts of this slogan:

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(1) What is happiness?

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(2) Greatest number of what?

Greatest happiness for the greatest number
(3) What has to be considered in determining greatness of happiness?

To which we can add a fourth question about the whole thing:

(4) To what do we apply this principle?

We are discussing classical utilitarianism, and all classical utilitarianisms, of whatever form, accept the same theory of happiness: Happiness is pleasure without pain (to the extent that is possible), and that's it. If you propose a different theory of happiness (say, that happiness is pleasure without pain in a sociable life with close friends), you get a different version of utilitarianism. We could also change utilitarianism by changing whose happiness we count. In practice, though, most of the reasons why people are attracted to utilitarianism are also reasons not to restrict whose happiness counts. After all, if happiness is what matters for ethics, why would some happiness not be counted? It's still happiness. So, overwhelmingly, the most common answer to (2) is that we are counting anything and everything that can feel happiness. So we can build a table to give our results so far.

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness

If we think about Bentham, when Bentham is determining greatness of happiness, he considers only quantitative measures; and he applies these to decisions or actions, whether as an individual or as a matter of law, although in fact he never lumps these together but always treats calculations about decisions for oneself as different things from calculations about decisions for society. So we can put him on the table:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity (intensity, duration, etc.)(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws

Not all classical utilitarians give the same answers as Bentham for (3) and (4), however. This brings us to John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who gives different answers for both. And to understand how Mill diverges from Bentham, and more importantly, why, we need to know something about Mill's life as a utilitarian. Unlike most classical utilitarians, Mill was raised as a classical utilitarian, indeed as Benthamite, and what he learned both made him appreciate Bentham (who remains throughout his life as one of his major influences) and think that Bentham's approach was inadequate.

JohnStuartMill.JPG
Public Domain, Link


James Mill, John Stuart Mill's father, while not commonly read today, was an important utilitarian and contemporary of Bentham. Like other utilitarians of a Benthamite stripe, he was actively interested in reform, and that included reform of education; he attempted to work out a course of education for the young John. John Stuart Mill began studying Ancient Greek and arithmetic at the age of three, and as he grew older, he began, on his own, to read a large amount of history. At the age of eight, he began Latin, and shortly afterward geometry and algebra and then a bit later differential calculus, although his education in the last was at the time inadequate for any serious understanding. He developed a taste for reading about the sciences (although he would later regret that his interest in the sciences at this age only went so far as reading about experiments and not actually doing them). At the age of twelve, his father started him on logic. His father also paid a great deal of attention to elocution -- important for oratory, which James Mill seems to have thought particularly important due to its political relevance -- but John Stuart Mill makes a comment on this in his Autobiography I think can be taken to sum up much of how James Mill approached teaching (Chapter 1): "A defect running through his otherwise admirable modes of instruction, as it did through all his modes of thought, was that of trusting too much to the intelligibleness of the abstract, when not embodied in the concrete." At the age of thirteen, John Stuart Mill began studying economics. This would serve him well when he was sent to France at the age of fourteen, at which time he interacted with a number of important economists of the day. After he returned from France, he would study Roman law under John Austin, the noted jurist. And at the same time, Mill, who had grown up in a Benthamite household, actually read Bentham. And it was a landmark in his life. As he would put it (Autobiography, Chapter 3):

My previous education had been, in a certain sense, already a course of Benthamism. The Benthamic standard of "the greatest happiness" was that which I had always been taught to apply; I was even familiar with an abstract discussion of it, forming an episode in an unpublished dialogue on Government, written by my father on the Platonic model. Yet in the first pages of Bentham it burst upon me with all the force of novelty. What thus impressed me was the chapter in which Bentham passed judgment on the common modes of reasoning in morals and legislation, deduced from phrases like "law of nature," "right reason," "the moral sense," "natural rectitude," and the like, and characterized them as dogmatism in disguise, imposing its sentiments upon others under cover of sounding expressions which convey no reason for the sentiment, but set up the sentiment as its own reason. It had not struck me before, that Bentham's principle put an end to all this. The feeling rushed upon me, that all previous moralists were superseded, and that here indeed was the commencement of a new era in thought. This impression was strengthened by the manner in which Bentham put into scientific form the application of the happiness principle to the morality of actions, by analysing the various classes and orders of their consequences....The "principle of utility," understood as Bentham understood it, and applied in the manner in which he applied it through these three volumes, fell exactly into its place as the keystone which held together the detached and fragmentary component parts of my knowledge and beliefs. It gave unity to my conceptions of things. I now had opinions; a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion; the inculcation and diffusion of which could be made the principal outward purpose of a life. And I had a grand conception laid before me of changes to be effected in the condition of mankind through that doctrine.

Mill would himself become very active in utilitarianism understood not merely as a philosophy but as a movement of practical reform. In this work of active reform, he thought, he could find true happiness. But in 1826, all of this shifted. He was feeling a bit down, and while feeling this way, asked himself whether he would actually be happy if all of his reforming activities succeeded, and realized that he would not be. This was devastating. He had been so enthusiastic for reform because the ends had seemed so worthwhile, as contributing something to enduring happiness, and coming to the realization that he could no longer think of the ends of his activism as sources of happiness, his motivation to pursue them collapsed. It's not that he had a crisis of faith in the principle of utility; he still recognized the things for which he was working as good, in the abstract. What he could not do is feel that there was any point in working toward them. The depression seemed to grow worse with time, probably in part because Mill was so isolated in his melancholy, since he did not think he could make his father or any of his friends understand his problem. The problem seemed clear to Mill himself, however: his education, thorough as it seemed, had failed him because nothing in it had cultivated in him feelings that were likely to endure in the face of all the logic and analysis with which his education had been abundantly supplied. Utilitarianism was right -- but his utilitarian education had eaten away at what made it practically possible to be a utilitarian.

Mill managed to force himself to keep up his utilitarian activities, partly by deliberately trying not to think about happiness at all. But he also began to consider this problem of how one cultivates feelings. He tried a number of things, and in 1828 began reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. It would be another landmark in his life, as well as one in the history of utilitarianism, because in reading Wordsworth he found a glimmer of something that would provide a solution.

William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet; feelings and passions were important in Romanticism, and Romantics like Wordsworth gave an extraordinary amount of thought to the influence of feelings on science, religion, politics, and, in short, all the aspects of human life. And for Wordsworth, poetry did not exist simply to express the poet's feelings, but to communicate to others those feelings that go with what might be called the 'fit' between the mind and world, which plays a significant role in our motivations. If Mill's reaction is any test, Wordsworth was successful in this. As Mill says in his Autobiography (Chapter 5):

What made Wordsworth's poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence....I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in, the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.

To use one of his examples, it became clear to him that the feeling of the beauty of the clouds at sunset is something that can go with knowing that clouds are masses of water vapor acting according to physical laws. This would lead to a reconsideration of much of his view of the world, and we find the impact of this in his 1838 essay, "Bentham", which has high praise for aspects of Bentham's utilitarianism, but also some rather severe criticism. Mill's criticism covers a number of features of Bentham's philosophy, but the part that is of particular value for our purposes is a criticism that he thinks applies not merely to Bentham but also to many others:

This error, or rather one-sidedness, belongs to him not as a utilitarian, but as a moralist by profession, and in common with almost all professed moralists, whether religious or philosophical: it is that of treating the moral view of actions and characters, which is unquestionably the first and most important mode of looking at them, as if it were the sole one: whereas it is only one of three, by all of which our sentiments towards the human being may be, ought to be, and without entirely crushing our own nature cannot but be, materially influenced. Every human action has three aspects: its moral aspect, or that of its right and wrong; its ├Žsthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect, or that of its loveableness. The first addresses itself to our reason and conscience; the second to our imagination; the third to our human fellow-feeling. According to the first, we approve or disapprove; according to the second, we admire or despise; according to the third, we love, pity, or dislike.

Mill uses the example of the Roman hero Brutus. Brutus's sons were implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic and, as it happens, Brutus was the judge when their case came up. He heard it, and as the evidence of their guilt was quite clear, he sentenced them to death. The action was right, if we consider just how much happiness depended on the freedom of the Roman citizens; it was even admirable, in that it showed a patriotism and devotion to the public good on a heroic scale. But nobody can look at such an action and find it sympathetic or loveable. It seems inhuman for a father to condemn his sons to death. It was in some way the right thing to do, but also in some way a bad thing to do. Suppose, Mill goes on, the younger brother had been involved in the conspiracy solely out of affection for the older brother. What he did was neither right nor admirable, but nonetheless loveable; it is something with which one could sympathize. It was wrong, but it was not wholly bad.

One of the major points made in the essay on Bentham is that human beings are not indivisible agents with singular motivations. We have a rich, complex, multifaceted moral psychology. And human happiness depends on fulfilling this complex human nature. Internal consequences are at least as important as external consequences. While there are differing views on the subject, I think this is the major concern which will drive Mill's deviations from Bentham. Suppose you could get immense pleasure from eating a special kind of chocolate cake. Obviously, this can contribute a great deal to your happiness, understood as pleasure without pain. But if you had this cake, would it actually suffice to make you happy? Here's a reason to think it couldn't: you aren't a cake-eating machine. Eating cake is nice, but you have a much wider range of needs than eating cake can actually satisfy. Make the pleasure of eating the cake ever so great, it will not satisfy your sense of honor, it will not satisfy your need for friends, it will not satisfy your love of action and your desire to overcome challenges, it will not satisfy your love of beauty. It's just cake. Very good cake, to be sure, but just cake. Conversation with friends, on the other hand, may not give you pleasures as vast as our hypothetical chocolate cake, but it will no doubt give you pleasure that contributes to more of who you are as a human being.

Something like this line of thought, at least, gets us to where we find Mill in his most famous and influential discussion, Utilitarianism, first published in Fraser's Magazine in 1861 and then published as a book in 1863. Quantity of pleasure is not enough. One must also consider quality of pleasure. As he says in what is perhaps his most famous comment (Chapter 2):

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

When we are comparing two pleasures in equal quantity, it can nonetheless happen that all or almost all who can appreciate both pleasures will nonetheless still treat one of them as more desirable or valuable and, indeed, as so much more valuable that, however much you increased the quantity of the other pleasure, they still would not give up this pleasure. In that case, the preferred pleasure is superior in quality; it is the higher pleasure. It might be lower than some other pleasure, but it is the more valuable in this comparison. However much pleasure a pig may have, it is a pig's pleasure; a human being has a richer set of needs and desires than a pig could ever have, and the pleasures of a pig will not do a good job satisfying them. Socrates has cultivated himself so that he is capable of a richer experience of life than any fool; no matter how happy the fool is, a fool's happiness will not be rich enough to satisfy a Socrates.

Benthamites at the time, and more than a few people since, thought this a weird hybridization of Bentham's pure theory with Romanticism. And many thought that it simply gives away the store -- many people think it takes away the attraction of being a utilitarian. But from what we have seen, of course, Mill likely thinks his own experience proves that you need something like this if you take seriously the idea that the moral life is not just an abstract scheme but something to be lived by actual human beings.

There are some obscurities in how we are supposed to unite our measurements of quantity with our judgments of quality. But there is no question that it is a significant change. Once we add quality to the mix, neither the felicific calculus nor the repudiation of asceticism can work the way Bentham thinks they should. Simply calculating with quantities of pleasures and pains will now only get you the right answer if the pleasures and pains do not differ much in terms of quality. In addition, the introduction of quality means that it might now be reasonable for us deliberately to take less pleasure in order to get better pleasure. It shifts the entire approach and gives us a new kind of utilitarianism:

(1) happiness(2) for the greatest number of(3) by looking at(4) applying this to
All classical utilitarians, by definitionpleasure without pain
Virtually all classical utilitarians, in practicepleasure without painanything that can experience happiness
Benthampleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity(1) decisions or actions for oneself;
(2) laws
Millpleasure without painanything that can experience happinessquantity and quality

Mill will also end up differing with Bentham on the application of the principle of utility, largely, I think, because introducing quality into the assessment requires us to use the principle more flexibly than Bentham would have countenanced. But this is a complicated enough matter that it will need its own future post.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

The Button

One of my students recently pointed out to me this jokey version of the ethical scenario that is depicted in Richard Matheson's "Button, Button", and that is found in a particularly famous form in the radio episode, "The Chinaman Button" (which I've talked about before).

Sacred to All the Young and the Unborn

In February
by Alice Meynell


Rich meanings of the prophet-Spring adorn,
Unseen, this colourless sky of folded showers,
And folded winds; no blossom in the bowers.
A poet's face asleep is this grey morn.

Now in the midst of the old world forlorn
A mystic child is set in these still hours.
I keep this time, even before the flowers,
Sacred to all the young and the unborn;

To all the miles and miles of unsprung wheat,
And to the Spring waiting beyond the portal,
And to the future of my own young art,

And, among all these things, to you, my sweet,
My friend, to your calm face and the immortal
Child tarrying all your life-time in your heart.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Three Poem Drafts

Divine Law

Who makes a law is guiding to an end,
to set to act an order and a way,
as general will seek a winning day,
as statesman rule for peace of friend to friend,
but He who is on high does all his deeds
for Him Himself, their end, the God who draws
existence, life, and love and thus all laws,
for glory never touched by wants or needs,
as when to Moses gave He laws on stone,
a providence to be expressed by act
and life that preached that He is God alone.
Thus laws that God has given from His throne
turn human heart to God and form as fact
a pattern making us His very own.

Harmonia

In governance alone opposing things
in harmony and unity are bound.
All regulation 'round an end must ring;
where opposites unite a mind is found.
This world a cosmos makes, and formed as one
draws many different things into a whole;
opposing things do not to chaos run
but act, each in its place, as if by goal.
A plan by human thought takes pro and con
and gives to each its weight; when interests war
it finds a place for each and guides them home:
just so, beyond all chance an order dawns
by providential mind that holds in store
the aims from which the world does never roam.

Easy

Baby, lift your wings if you want to fly,
no holding back, you can travel the sky;
get out and try what you've wanted to try;
I'll just make it easy.

If you want to climb, and no matter how high,
if you want to dive, I won't even ask why,
just say the word, there's no need to be shy;
I will make it easy.

Sometimes you miss the chance
to take part in the dance;
sometimes your dream
is not what it seemed;
you may try to smile
and be a good sport,
but don't hide your light
or sell yourself short;
sometimes all you need
is some loving support.

Baby, life goes fast and one day we'll die;
but this is your fate, and I tell you no lie:
you'll shine like a star 'cause I'll be your guy,
and I will make it easy.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

George Steiner (1929-2020)

George Steiner died on February 3 at the age of 90. Born in 1929 in Paris to Viennese Jews who had fled to France to escape antisemitism; they fled to New York in 1940, and with good timing, because the Nazis invaded France shortly after they left. After a number of academic positions, he eventually began to teach at the University of Geneva, where he stayed until retirement. Most of his writing is in comparative literature, cultural criticism, or philosophy of literature. From his work, Real Presences (The University of Chicago Press [Chicago: 1989] p. 145):

No serious writer, composer, painter has ever doubted, even in moments of strategic aestheticism, that his work bears on good and evil, on the enhancement or diminution of the sum of humanity in man and the city. To imagine originally, to shape into significant expression, is to test in depth those potentialities of understanding and of conduct ("thrones, dominions, powers" as the rhetoric and architecture of the baroque have it) which are the life-substance of the ethical. A message is being sent; to a purpose. The style, the explicit figurations of that message may be perverse, they may intend the subjugation, even the ruin of the recipient. They may claim for themselves, as in Sade, as in the black paintings of Goya, as in the death-dance of Artaud, the sombre licence of the suicidal. But their pertinence to questions and consequences of an ethical order is the more palpable. Only trash, only kitsch and artefacts, texts, music, which are produced solely for momentary or propagandistic ends do, indeed transcend (transgress) morality. Theirs is the pornography of insignificance.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Evening Note for Monday, February 3

Thought for the Evening: The Good Place

The Good Place was a comedy TV show produced by Michael Shur, and just had its finale recently. It was a philosophy teacher's dream, since the show was heavily laced with philosophical ethics -- real philosophical ethics, which is sometimes more than you get when a show does 'philosophy'. It had a hilarious episode on trolley problems (Season 2, Episode 6), for instance, repeated references throughout to Scanlon's book, What We Owe to Each Other, and lots of Kant and Aristotle jokes. The show had philosophers as consultants, Patrician Hieronymi (of UCLA) and Todd May (of Clemson), both of whom have cameos in the finale. (When I was watching the scene with Hieronymi, I thought, "I've seen that actress somewhere; what is she in?")

The basic conceit with which we start is that Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in the Good Place, in the neighborhood designed by the architect Michael (Ted Danson) and run by the artificial intelligence Janet (D'Arcy Carden) and realizes immediately that they have made a mistake; she gets help from Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) and zaniness ensues. But the situation shifts dramatically many times during the whole series; one of the notable features of the show, and one that gives it a feeling of substantiveness other shows often lack, is that it will take an idea that most series would have spent at least several episodes on and burn through it in a single episode, perhaps even less. There is a lot that happens in the relatively short episodes of this relatively short series. The comedy is good, the casting and acting are great. It's good television.

Occasionally it borders on profound. One that's always stuck with me is Michael's musing on frozen yogurt in Season 1 that human beings will take something good and make it a little bit worse so we can have more of it, which I think manages to be funny, true, and illuminating of a lot of human life. It is fairly insightful about the difference between people who recognize their failings and people who don't. It almost, almost reaches a truth that would have been worth a television show: Human beings achieve their most important things cooperatively -- build societies, fly to the moon, change the world, what have you -- so why do we keep assuming that we can live the moral life alone? It never quite pulls this together, usually opting instead for a generic 'friends are what it's all about' theme, although sometimes it comes very close, as with the title of one its episodes, "Help is Other People", or the occasional hint that what we really owe to each other is a little bit of reasonable support.

Ultimately, however, I think the show flounders a bit, considered in terms of the ethics with which it interacts. The reason is not, as one review would have it, a failure to grapple with capitalism. Rather, it's that The Good Place had no real conception of goodness. I think this is a rather common problem, actually; we want to be good people living the good life, but this requires more attention to what goodness actually is than most people ever give it. And the show never really goes beyond this. Most of what counts as good throughout the series is trivial; indeed, if it weren't for a real recognition of friendship as a major good of human life, it would all be trivial. Despite the excellent joke of the motto of the neighborhood in Season 1 being the vague and lackluster "Everything is fine", it never actually gets beyond "Everything is fine." The committee running the Good Place, we eventually find, is a bunch of very ineffective activists, and indeed, the best the series manages in showing a 'good person' is to show a generic activist. I've met a lot of activists in my life; activists are not any more likely to be good people than anyone else, and activism itself is very much not the good life, however necessary it might be as a means to an end occasionally. But this conflation of means and ends is not surprising, following as it does from the fact that the show treats being good as nothing more substantive than being likable, nonthreatening, and willing to try to be good; the good life is a hedonic life of getting along hedonically and usefully helping each other out in ways that make us progress by becoming better able to get along and help each other out. It is a world in which goodness has no sublimity, no infinity, no authority, and no unbearable radiance. It's just fine.

This is seen very clear as we approach the end, I think. We meet Hypatia of Alexandria (Lisa Kudrow) -- actually just writing that Hypatia of Alexandria was played by Lisa Kudrow tells you most of the joke. The show does not do justice to Hypatia; we don't know Hypatia's particular ethical views, but we know generically what they would have been like, because she was a well-respected Neoplatonist, and we know the kinds of things that Neoplatonists would have taught: the superiority of the mental over the physical, the superiority of the intellect over the senses, the absolute superiority of the Good over goods. But the show has no space for such a view; mental and physical pleasures are treated as on a level, sensible goods are all that are shown, and all good is finite. The show is intelligently written enough that it shows a recognition that a hedonic life of getting along and helping each other out is a life that will certainly run out of good. This is not a minor recognition. But there is no other kind of good that it recognizes. All good being finite, eventually you'll be done with it. And in a world with no infinite good, the closest you can come to recognize anything beyond this running-down kind of life is just to recognize that at some point the final good you can have is just to bring it all to an end. The show buys into the canard that mortality gives life meaning; it also fails to be very convincing about it, because it can't help but repeatedly show, by the very nature of its premise and its structure, that our mortality is only given meaning by our life. But even having supposed that life goes on after death, the only life it shows is one with good that runs out.

Various Links of Interest

* Maureen Johnson, Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village

* Kyle Williams, Happiness, Virtue, and the Bastard Science

* Daniel Burns, The Classical Alternative to Liberal Theory, at "Public Discourse"

* Alex Pruss has video versions of his 2019 Wilde Lectures in Natural Theology

* Liz Tracey looks at Avicenna's contribution to medicine

* Jon Baskin, On the Hatred of Literature, and Friends Like These

* Valerie Stivers, Cooking with Zora Neale Hurston

* Nina Papathanasopoulou, Black Classicisms in the Visual Arts

* Alice Maz, Playing to Win, is a very interesting discussion of the economies of gameworlds.

* Frank Furedi, Butchers vs. Academics, looks at one aspect of the class issues involved in Brexit debates.

* Clare Carlisle, The philosophy of George Eliot. Carlisle primarily focuses on the Spinozistic side, but there are other sides to George Eliot's philosophical engagements, too, including Feuerbach and Comte and Lewes himself.

* Timothy B. Noone, Augustine on Words, Signs, Thoughts, and Things in De Magistro

* Scott Meikle, The Switch from Agency to Causation in Marx

* Kathleen Stock, Sticks, stones, and lawsuits and Helen Joyce, Speaking up for female eunuchs, on the current disputes over transgender politics in British feminism.

* Gillian Dooley on Iris Murdoch's philosophy of fiction

Currently Reading

Amos Tutuola, The Palm Wine Drinkard
Christopher Tolkien, ed., Sauron Defeated
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Hope as a Moral Virtue

Michael Milona has an interesting discussion of the topic of whether hope can be a moral virtue. As he notes, the most common historical view in the West is that hope is a theological virtue, not a moral virtue. None of the theological virtues (faith, hope, love/charity) are moral virtues or even have close analogues among the moral virtues. This is a deliberate move, and I don't think Milona dwells on the reasons why this move is deliberately being made.

Charity is the easiest one to grasp. The closest moral analogue of charity is friendship; but friendship is not in general a virtue for the obvious reason that friendship is not in general a character trait. For friendship to be a virtue, it would have to be something a person could have, stably, in themselves, but friendship is an interaction of at least two people. However, charity, which in a sense is being friends with God, is 'infused', i.e., given by God and sustained by Him, so in having it you have friendship with God, stably, as a part of your character. Thus Scotus, for instance, calls charity 'superfriendship'; it meets the requirements of being friendship, but does so in a superabundant way normal forms of friendship do not. Thus it can be considered a virtue, although the way it fulfills the definition of virtue is somewhat different from the way that moral virtues do.

Faith and hope each have a different reasons why their closest non-theological counterparts are not virtues, although the reason why they themselves can be virtues is in a sense a different variation on the same idea. The closest non-theological counterpart to faith is belief, or reliance on human testimony; acts of reliance on human testimony could be taken up, as it were, by other virtues in specific contexts, but it is not in itself any kind of human excellence, in part because human testimony is unreliable. If faith were a nontheological virtue, it would have to perfect the intellect, but the intellect aims at truth, so what perfects or completes the intellect is guaranteed to capture some aspect of truth. This is where the intellectual virtues come in: skill, knowledge, understanding, wisdom, prudence, all of which capture some aspect of truth in a stable way. Of these, only prudence concerns matters of choice directly, so only prudence is a moral virtue. And, indeed, when we are inclined to think that this or that act of trust in human testimony is virtuous, it's usually because it is an act of prudence, although sometimes it might be an act of justice, or of fortitude, or the like. But theological faith is reliance given by God on testimony given by God, and thus it does not have the unreliability with respect to truth that human testimony does. Hope is similar, except it is concerned with good rather than true; it is concerned with good that is difficult. Nontheological hope is not a virtue because difficult good cannot be guaranteed; it is not in general a form of human excellence to act on the assumption that one already has a difficult good. (The human excellence generally concerned with difficult good is magnanimity, which is not what we would ordinarily characterize as itself being a kind of hope.) But the difficult good with which theological hope is concerned is eternal happiness, and it is a virtue given by God to trust in means given by God to achieve eternal happiness which is God Himself, and therefore it is already the beginning of what is hoped for. Theological hope has by its own means what it does not yet have in hand, and thus can have the features of a virtue.

Milona proposes a priorities account of hope: hope is having one's priorities straight. He is right, I think, that this is a virtue; it is in fact nothing other than the virtue of prudence. Milona (to his great credit) considers this possibility, but I confess I don't fully understand his argument for why they should be distinguished. I think the idea is that hope (as understood by the priorities account) is related to prudence in the way that (e.g.) justice and fortitude are, but with other virtues it's obvious why their typical acts are distinct from prudence; but it seems like deliberate setting of actual priorities is just one of the things prudence does in order to make a decision. Perhaps one could argue, though, that there is a virtue, one that could be called hope, that is a 'potential part' of prudence, as Aquinas would say, that only concerns our prioritizing. But I don't know how that would work in relation to decision-making.

Epilogue and Appendix

I had mentioned that as things stand in LOTR, the Appendices work not so much as appendices but as completing the story. This is clear simply from structure, but one can make the argument from the development of the story.

The main tale as it was eventually published ends abruptly with Sam coming back home after visting the Grey Havens and the line, "'Well, I'm back,' he said." This was not Tolkien's original intent. He wrote an epilogue for the work, two versions of which are discussed in Christopher Tolkien's Sauron Defeated (Houghton Mifflin, [New York: 1992] pp. 114-135), in which we see Sam in his family life, interacting with his children. In the second, which Tolkien still expected to put in quite late, Sam is working on the Red Book and begins having a discussion with his daughter, Elanor, in which a few facts about the rest come out, and he shows her a letter from King Elessar, who is coming north. (In typical Tolkien fashion, Tolkien took time to make a few versions of it, which are not actually used in the epilogue, in order to know how it would look in tengwar.) It ends with his looking at the stars with his wife, Rose, and then going back inside, but as he closes the door he hears the sigh of the Sea.

We don't seem to know the exact reason, but from his correspondence, we know that Tolkien was convinced simply to drop the Epilogue -- apparently everyone thought it should be dropped. But, as Christopher Tolkien says, "He seems both to have accepted and to have regretted that decision" (p. 132); he thought that the book was incomplete without something on Sam and Elanor (who satisfies the longing for Elves that had started Sam off at the very beginning of the work), but could not come up with anything else that would work, beyond "the hints (possibly sufficient) in the appendices" (p. 133). Thus the appendices are all that's left to fulfill a function that Tolkien himself thought necessary to complete the work.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Fortnightly Book, February 2

It's almost happenstance that Amos Tutuola became an author. Born as Olatubusun (much later taking the name Amos when he was baptized) in a village just outside the Nigerian city of Abeokuta, where his father was an administrator. In his teenage years he attended the Anglican Central School in Abeokuta, for a total of about six years of formal schooling, and then dropped out when his father died to train as a coppersmith and blacksmith, eventually plying his skills as a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. After the war, he got a job in Lagos as a messenger for the Nigerian Department of Labour (which he did not like at all). He happened one day to see the sort of magazine that would get circulated around by the information services of various Commonwealth countries. What had caught his attention was that the theme of the magazine was Nigeria, and it had been full of excellent photographs of the Yoruba sculptures and practices with which he had grown up. He was enjoying it and then he came on a page of advertisement by book publishers, one of which was a collection of Yoruba tales, and the idea clicked: he had always been good at telling stories, why not write a book? He set down to write it, finished it in a few days, and that is how his first novel, whose full title was The Palm Wine Drinkard and His Dead Palm-Wine Tapster in the Deads' Town. And having written it -- he put it aside, having no idea how to get a book published. But he later bought another magazine, and happened to come across an advertisement by a publisher asking for manuscripts. He sent it off.

The publisher was Lutheran World Press, a Christian publishing house specializing in religious texts, and they must have been quite surprised to receive this manuscript with not a drop of Christianity, filled with Yoruba gods and ghosts. But the people at Lutheran World Press seem to have been reasonably decent and also to have had a good sense of what could be published, so instead of simply rejecting it and sending it back, as most publishers would, they wrote him and said that, while they only published Christian religious texts, if he would give them some time they would find a suitable publisher for him. And they kept their word. About a year later, Faber & Faber wrote him, having been given a copy of the manuscript by Lutheran World Press, asking if the work was his own or if he were transcribing someone else's stories, and they hoped to be able to publish it. And thus The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952. Faber & Faber was expecting it to sell modestly, but it quickly took off when people like Dylan Thomas started recommending it to everybody, and within a few years became one of the most widely read and highly globally praised African novels of the twentieth century. Ironically, although perhaps not surprisingly, it took a longer time for Nigerians themselves to warm up to it. The novel is written in nonstandard and colloquial English with scarcely any effort at polish at all, exhibits an unabashed enthusiasm for back-country Nigerian folktale themes, and showed no concern whatsoever with what often occupied educated and cultured Nigerians of the day, namely, showing that all the stereotypes of Africans as backwards and superstitious primitives were wrong, heedlessly embracing any facet of Yoruba culture and legend without the slightest regard for what Europeans would think of it. But the unrelenting success of it even broke down their caution, and Tutuola's work became one of the foundational work in the development of a more relaxed Nigerian style of novel.

Tutuola followed The Palm Wine Drinkard with his second novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in 1954. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is an independent work, although The Palm Wine Drinkard refers to it several times despite the fact that it had not been published or even written yet; this strange displacement fits the work itself, in which time is disjointed and things regularly occur out of sequence. Neither it nor any of Tutuola's later works would match the unimaginable success of The Palm Wine Drinkard, although it did quite well in its own terms.

So the Fortnightly Book will be double, since I have an edition that has them both: The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Both deal with the line between life and death and the way the world goes sideways when a mortal crosses into the realm of the dead. In The Palm Wine Drinkard, a man who spends all his days drinking palm wine, with his own dedicated palm wine tapster, is upset when the tapster dies and he can't find anyone who is as good at getting him his palm wine. So he sets out to find out where the dead tapster went so he can get that endless supply of palm wine again. It will be a strange and dangerous adventure, requiring among other things kidnapping Death and outwitting a wide variety of dangerous and unreliable ghosts. The narrator of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a young man, the son of a third wife, and the first two wives, who have no sons, hate him, his mother, and his brother with a malicious hatred. This hatred will set him off, separated from his family, on an adventure through the Bush of Ghosts, where time does not work as it should, and he must figure out how to survive a series of towns of dangerous ghosts of which he knows nothing.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Introduction

Opening Passage:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. (p. 21)

Summary: I'll divide the story by its six parts, and use the titles, that Tolkien had originally intended when trying to get the work published, and then just pick out one or two things from each on which to comment. One advantage of trying to summarize the book this way is that it makes very clear just how much story there is to this story.

Book I: The Ring Sets out

After Bilbo passes his ring to his nephew Frodo, Gandalf, having long suspected that there was something important, and dangerous, about the ring, establishes that it is the ruling Ring of Sauron, which he made to control the rings that he had helped the Elves make in order to preserve the good of Middle Earth. However, when Gandalf does not return as expected, Frodo sets out without him, closely pursued by the Black Riders seeking it, accompanied by Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Strider, and eventually reaches Rivendell.

The book is primarily structured by the mystery of what happened to Gandalf, but one of the most notable features of it is the interaction with Tom Bombadil, which many readers find somewhat jarring. The reason for Bombadil narratively, of course, is that Tolkien needs an upstep to move from the parochial world of the hobbits to the more epic stage and, later, a downstep to move back. In The Hobbit, the trolls serve as this upstep/downstep point in the story, but The Lord of the Rings needs at least a larger upstep. Bombadil ended up fulfilling this function, of course, because Tolkien originally had difficulty figuring out how to start the tale, and Bombadil already existed in a published form, in some poems, and so was available to play the part. Once he was in, there was not really much to replace him; Bombadil jars some readers precisely because he sits exactly at the uncanny line between the hobbitish and the non-hobbitish. He is higher and remoter than the hobbits, but not so high and remote as, say, Glorfindel. But the Bombadil scenes do much more than this. I was struck this reading at how much Bombadil sets up for the rest of the story. First, much of this phase of the tale ends up smoothing the way for later things: Lórien and Fangorn are both easily believed because of what we have already seen in the Old Forest; the Barrow-wights show us that the dead can have power, preparing us for the Paths of the Dead; and it is from Tom that we first hear of the Rangers and their relations to the kings of old, and have the presentiment of Aragorn. Moreover, and often not sufficiently remarked, while Tom does not leave his domain, he plays an integral role in the culmination of events, since the blade Merry uses to wound the Witch-King is precisely the one given to him by Tom, and was only able to do the damage it did because it was a blade forged long ago in the wars of the North against the Witch-King.

Book II: The Ring Goes South

In Rivendell the hobbits find Gandalf. A Council is held to determine what to do with the Ring, at which we learn the reason for Gandalf's delay: the wizard Saruman is a traitor, and Gandalf had to escape his clutches. It is decided that the Ring must be destroyed in secret in the only place it can be, Mount Doom in Mordor, and when Frodo volunteers, a fellowship of Nine are chosen to go with him, at least as far as they can: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Boromir of Gondor, Gimli son of Gloin, and Legolas. The Nine nearly fail at the first task they must achieve, crossing the mountains in secret, but, all other options having failed, they proceed through the Mines of Moria, once stronghold of the Dwarves, but long since abandoned at the coming of a great and terrible evil. In Moria they find Orcs, and worse, the very evil itself that had forced the Dwarves to flee, and Gandalf falls at the Bridge of Khazad-Düm in order to make it possible for the rest to escape. The remaining members of the Fellowship reach the forest-kingdom of Lothlórien, where they meet Galadriel, who tests their hearts and gives them gifts for their journey. Afterwards, Boromir gives in to the temptation of the Ring, attempting to take it from Frodo, and although he repents of his fall, his action breaks the company, as Frodo and Sam flee East on their own.

The Fellowship of the Ring is more scattered than the rest of the tale, almost of necessity, since it is the part of the story that has to pull together its very disparate elements into something that can work in a unified way. But "The Bridge of Khazad-Düm" is, I think, one of the best chapters of the entire tale. There are certain key points at which the story rises to its highest heights -- Helm's Deep, Isengard, Cirith Ungol, Minas Tirith, Mount Doom -- but Moria is the first, the point at which the story ceases to be merely an enjoyable adventure and begins to become something epic and unforgettable.

Book III: The Treason of Isengard

Boromir dies trying to save Merry and Pippin from a band of Orcs, who then carry them off toward the West. Thus Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas must make the hard choice which hobbits to help, and they go West into Rohan, where we get the first introduction to the Rohirrim. Merry and Pippin, meanwhile, manage to escape and meet Treebeard, the Shepherd of the Trees, and by giving him new information about Saruman provide the last straw that will start a landslide that Saruman will regret. The other three, still pursuing Merry and Pippin, come to Gandalf, who has died and returned. (Interestingly, reading about Tolkien's early drafts and notes, this seems to have been something Tolkien planned as soon as he had Gandalf fall in Moria: Gandalf too needed an upstep.) Proceeding to Edoras, the courts of the Rohirrim, Gandalf rouses King Théoden to his proper responsibilities, and the Rohirrim prepare for war against Saruman in Isengard. At the ancient fortress of Helm's Deep, they are besieged by Saruman's army of orcs and with great difficulty fight them off when Gandalf brings reinforcements and, more mysteriously, a new and strange wood appears on the battlefield. At Isengard, they find that the Ents have taken all of Isengard except the central tower of Orthanc itself; and meeting up with Merry and Pippin again, we learn the the wood was sent by the Ents. At Isengard, they come into possession of a palantír, an ancient seeing stone, and Pippin out of curiosity looks into it. As Sauron will now suspect they have the Ring, and will therefore move much more quickly, Gandalf rushes to Minis Tirith ahead of the Rohirrim, taking Pippin with him so that he will not be tempted again.

It is with this book, I think, that the characters really begin to enter into their own; the division of the company means that they, and especially the hobbits, are seen in more detail than they otherwise would be, and it will all for later remixings to show further lights of their characters. While we only get a little more of Boromir, he has his chance to show that there was more to him than his failure might suggest. At this point we have three groups: Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, and Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Gandalf rejoins the latter three and will be the means of their reuniting with Merry and Pippin. Then Gandalf and Pippin go to Gondor; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas will take the Paths of the dead; and Merry will be with the Rohirrim. The Battle of the Pelennor will reunite the six. After the fall of the Dark Tower, they will all be reunited. Then the non-hobbits slowly break away, with Gandalf, at the last, breaking off at the Old Forest and the hobbits re-entering the Shire and dealing with the problems there. In a work with so many characters, this is the right way to handle them all.

Book IV: The Ring Goes East

Frodo and Sam meet up with Gollum, or Smeagol, who has been following them for a long time, waiting for an opportunity to seize the Ring. They uneasily join forces and Smeagol becomes their guide, as Smeagol is not yet in a position to take the Ring and none of the three wants the Ring to fall into the hands of the orcs or other minions of Sauron. When it is clear that they cannot enter Mordor through the great gate of the Morannon without getting caught, but Frodo intends to do it anyway, Smeagol prevaricates and promises to lead them by another way. They travel through Ithilien to reach it, where they meet Boromir's brother Faramir, who discovers that they have the Ring but succeeds in resisting its temptation where his brother failed by refusing to consider it an option for resisting Sauron and, indeed, refusing even to look at it. He warns them about the entrance into Mordor Smeagol has promised them; it is Cirith Ungol, and is a place of dark and terrible rumor, but, having no options, when they leave Faramir, they continue anyway. There in Cirith Ungol is Shelob, the last great descendant of Ungoliant, spinning her webs; Smeagol abandons them, hoping to scavenge the Ring when they are dead. They escape, but Frodo is bitten and there are orcs all about. Sam, thinking that Frodo is dead, takes on the role of Ring-bearer; Frodo is captured, and Sam learns too late that Shelob's poison keeps her prey alive. Frodo is in the hands of the enemy, and Sam is left outside.

One of the interesting features of this part of the tale is Sam, who is shown both in his strengths and in his weaknesses -- and, indeed, his primary strength, his loyalty to Frodo, in many ways is the source of his weaknesses. The particularly notable one is a what-if -- Sam is perpetually suspicious of Smeagol, and he is right, but how much of his being right is due to his having been so suspicious in the first place? Smeagol's goodwill toward Frodo is sincere, although not enough to counter his obsession with the Ring; but Sam, overprotective of Frodo, keeps tramping into the middle of it. (One thing I also caught this time that I don't know that I had before is that the story, in passing, makes clear why Smeagol reacted so badly to Sam's charge that he was sneaking: the orcs, who of course, had been involved in Smeagol's previous torture by Sauron, also refer to him as the Sneak. And this sums the problem: Sam's behavior toward Smeagol, while driven by protectiveness rather than malice, and restrained by Frodo, is in some ways a little like the behavior of the orcs.) But we also, of course, see Sam rising to the occasion when it especially matters.

Book V: The War of the Ring

At Minas Tirith, Gandalf and Pippin meet with Denethor, the Ruling Steward, who is a man of great intelligence, pride, and force of will, and also clearly someone who does not get along with Gandalf. Pippin in memory of Boromir pledges his service to Gondor, and Minas Tirith is in a state of preparation for the blow that will fall from Sauron, always with the same problem: they do not have the numbers, even when help starts to arrive, because Sauron's lines of strategy cover everything from the Lonely Mountain in the North to the Harad in the South, and a significant number of Gondor's most prepared forces are menaced by corsairs from lands controlled by Sauron. Meanwhile, Rohan receives Gondor's plea for help, and begins to prepare, but Aragorn foresees that Minas Tirith will need more help at great speed, and resolves not to wait for the Rohirrim but to travel the Paths of the Dead to receive the help of the Oathbreakers, who long ago were cursed to remain until they fulfilled the oath to fight Sauron that they had broken. He does this despite Éowyn, Théoden's daughter begging him not to go. Gimli and Legolas go with him. Merry, however, who has sworn himself to the service of Rohan is nearly left behind by Théoden, but he is smuggled along.

In Gondor, battle comes. Early on, Faramir is gravely wounded, and Denethor goes mad, trying to burn himself and Faramir alive. Pippin seeks out Gandalf, who is in the battlefield, about to face the Witch-King; but that battle is deferred when the Rohirrim arrive. They had not only ridden at great speed, they had taken a shortcut, and, with the unexpected help of the Wild Men of the Woods are able to evade the orcs who are set to watch for them. The Witch-King deals with Théoden himself but is slain by Éowyn and Merry. Aragorn arrives, having defeated the corsairs and brought the full force of Gondor in his wake, thus bringing the grim and devastating battle to a close. Gandalf and Pippin stop Denethor from killing Faramir, but are unable to stop Denethor from killing himself. Aragorn's new forces are enough to replenish the city, but they have not dealt with more than a fraction of Sauron's forces, and more will surely come. They therefore follow a plan of distraction, in the hope that they can mislead Sauron into thinking they have the Ring and thereby draw his attention, giving the Ring-bearer time to destroy it. Leaving behind a reinforced Minas Tirith, they take a force to the Morannon and challenge Sauron on his very doorstep. A great battle begins, and they prepare to be crushed; Pippin is knocked unconscious, and the last thing he hears is, "The Eagles are coming!"

On this reading, I found myself considerably more sympathetic to Denethor than I usually am. He is a man under a constant strain of resisting a power greater than he is, and whose responsibilities as Steward mean that he must endanger and sacrifice his own sons if necessary. It does not help that he knows Gandalf comes with someone who has some claim on the throne, and from his proud perspective it must seem that all the sacrifice that he must make, and that he must have others make, has no end other than his own failure. Either he will lose to Sauron, or he will be supplanted; in either case the end of the reign of the Stewards will be due to him. Indeed, what seems to break him is that having lost Boromir, and apparently guaranteed to lose Faramir, he looks into the palantír and is faced with apparently indisputable proof that it was all for nothing. One of the grave mistakes of the movies was in failing to show Denethor as a great man. In reality, he is an extraordinary one. In another realm, he would be king. But in Gondor he rules only as a Steward, and while few if any could fulfill that position so well, he has focused too much on the ruling and not on the stewardship, and in so doing has lost the hope that is essential to the steward's task -- to prepare the way for another. He despairs and gives up the fight on the very return of the King.

Book VI: The End of the Third Age

Sam rescues Frodo and, because Sauron's war has drawn attention elsewhere, they make it to Mount Doom. Frodo, his resistance completely exhausted, claims the Ring as his own, but Smeagol, who has followed attempts to seize it, and, seizing the Ring, Smeagol falls into the fires below, destroying in a moment all things that Sauron had made with the power of the Ring. Frodo and Sam are eventually found by the Eagles and brought to Minas Tirith. Faramir and Éwyn meet in the Houses of Healing; Aragorn is crowned King and marries Arwen, the daughter of Elrond. The rest of the Company begins to return home, but discover that Saruman has escaped Orthanc. And when the hobbits return to the Shire, they find much that is wrong, and have to restore it. The years that come bring prosperity, but Frodo still bears the wounds and the weight of having been the Ring-bearer, and he takes to the Sea and the East with Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, leaving Middle Earth behind.

Despite the name, the Appendices are, I think, absolutely essential to understanding Book VI. In Book VI we have the end of the Third Age; it is the Appendices that really tell us what that means. In Book VI we have the return of the King; it is the Appendices that bring out the story of this, and make it truly the tale, as Frodo puts it, of THE DOWNFALL OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS AND THE RETURN OF THE KING. In Book VI, we see what happens to Gandalf and Frodo, but it is only the appendices that tell us of what happens to the rest, that Sam, as Ring-bearer, had also earned the right to go West, that Merry and Pippin return to Rohan and Gondor toward the end of their lives, that maybe -- it is said, at least -- that when Legolas took to the Sea, Gimli went with him. And, of course, it is from the Appendices that we get something of the linguistic and philological framework around which the whole story was built.

Favorite Passages: From The Fellowship of the Ring:

At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog's feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.

With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard's knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. 'Fly, you fools!' he cried, and was gone. (p. 322)

From The Two Towers:

'Yes, that's so,' said Sam. 'And we shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in teh mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually -- their paths were laid that way, as you pt it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten....' (p. 696)

From The Return of the King:

Still she did not blench: maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise. (p. 824)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, of course; easily one of the greatest works in English in the twentieth century.

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J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins (New York: 1995).