Saturday, July 25, 2020

Music on My Mind

Shirley Manson, "Samson and Delilah". It's an old song; Blind Willie Johnson seems to have been the first to do a well-known cover of it, but the most famous cover is that of the Grateful Dead. But I recently finally got around to seeing the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and found Manson's cover, which is used once, quite memorable, particularly the last stanza.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Winged Words

As the Monad does not go beyond its own definition but remains One once for all (which is why it is called 'Monad'), whereas the Dyad is an indefinite principle of diversity (for it immediately loses its identity by turning into plurality by the process of doubling), so a word that rests with its first possessor remains truly secret, but once it passes to another, it becomes common talk. Homer speaks of 'winged words': it is hard to catch such a creature with wings once you let it out of your hands, and impossible to grasp and control a word that you have let slip from your lips; it 'arches its swift wings' and is off, spreading from one group of people to another.

Plutarch, "Talkativeness", from Selected Essays and Dialogues, Russell, tr., Oxford UP (New York: 1993) p. 213.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Lucretius on the Fear of Tartarus and Death

One of the major selling points for Epicureanism, as seen by the Epicureans themselves, was that it eliminated the terror of death and the afterlife. Indeed, this is often presented as the primary reason to be Epicurean, the reason why we need to be Epicureans. This is generally recognized, but it is sometimes forgotten that this line of thought requires Epicureans to hold that human beings almost naturally are terrified of death and the afterlife; that, in fact, at least as a general rule the only way this can be eliminated is by the practice of Epicurean philosophy. This is a part of Epicureanism that often had criticism, and one way to criticize it is by arguing that many people do not fear death and the afterlife in the way that Epicureans assume.

Lucretius handles the problem in Book 3 of De rerum natura with a series of arguments that, whatever people may say, they do in fact generally fear "Tartarus and death", and (again, whatever they may say) this is true as well of people who claim to be materialists and say "that they know the mind to be composed of blood, or even of wind if that happens to catch their fancy" (p. 69). Lucretius thinks that this is obviously posturing for public consumption, and that if we look at their practice in adversity, we see clearly that people act in a way that is most reasonably described as fearing death and the afterlife:

For the same people, though banished from their homeland, driven far from the sight of other human beings, branded with stigma of some foul crime, and afflicted, in a word, with every kind of tribulation, continue to live.

Indeed, such people often will still engage in sacrifices to the underworld, etc.

However, there are further reasons, Lucretius thinks, for thinking that dismissal of the afterlife is just a show. There is a more indirect reason in looking at how well "avarice and blind lust for status, which drive wretched people to encroach beyond the boundaries of right" (p. 69) and "envy that before their eyes another possesses power" (p. 70) and other bad behaviors are often explained by fear of death and Tartarus; it is a general blight. Lucretius does not develop the full character of this argument, but one way to interpret it is as trying to argue that (1) this is a very general fear that people clearly often have difficulty overcoming even when it would be in their interest and according to their moral principles to do so; (2) the supposed reasons why people claim they lack such a fear are relatively superficial opinions (in contrast to Epicureanism, which is a philosophical discipline one practices throughout the whole of one's life); (3) and therefore it's implausible that such a superficial remedy could thoroughly cure a problem which the evidence tells us runs very deep.

We have the claim made by this person that they don't fear death and the afterlife because of their materialism, or whatever, but we have evidence (from the first argument) that even people who make claims like that are often seen, in their practice, to act contrary to what they say, and we also have evidence (from the second) that their explanation for why they don't fear death and the afterlife is entirely inadequate. Unlike the Stoics, the Epicureans did not regard rigorous abstract demonstration as an important goal, instead insisting on the importance of evidence rooted in sensible experience. Thus the issue is not whether there could be some hypothetical situation in which this line of thought could turn out wrong, but what our sensible evidence says; due to Epicurean epistemology, Epicurean arguments are framed in such a way that counterexamples are not easy to build against them -- they have to be real cases, not hypothetical ones, and cases where the question can be determined on the basis of actual experience. (One of the things that is very interesting about this argument.) It wouldn't be impossible to find such a case -- after all, Epicureans like Lucretius think they have the evidence of experience that Epicureanism cures the fear of death and the afterlife. But it would have to be an actual case.

[Quotations from Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Smith, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis: 2001).]

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Doctor Apostolicus

Today is the feast of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Doctor of the Church. He was born Giulio Cesare Russo on July 22, 1559 in the Kingdom of Naples and became a Capuchin. He had an extraordinary facility for languages, and therefore began life as a missionary through Italy and Germany. He was appointed the military chaplain to the army of Archduke Matthias, and so found himself tending souls on the battlefields of Hungary. On a mission to Phillip III of Spain, he died in Lisbon on July 22, 1619, his birthday.

Italienisch - Bildnis des Lorenzo di Brindisi - 3377 - Bavarian State Painting Collections
Sixteenth-century Italian painting of St. Laurence, by an unknown artist.

A New Poem Draft and Three Poem Re-Drafts

Sermon Against Censoriousness

None are pure beneath heaven's vault;
those who wish to find, may find a fault
and sins in droves, in endless herds,
like schools of fish, thick flocks of birds.
None have always hit the target right
or fought in forceful blaze the flawless fight,
and all who walk on earth have failed
at something; and none have ever sailed
across this sea remaining wholly dry --
no, not you, and surely never I --
and all have stumbled on the stony path.
Those who wish it may justify some wrath,
or sneer, or scorn, or burning-cold disdain.
But look around. We all are slain,
we all are bleeding on the battlefield
from wounds uncounted, our broken shield
and broken sword upon the ground;
immortals none of us are found
to be, however much we wish or dream.
Mere dream we are. Our glories gleam
like firefly-glimmers in the darkening night,
too soon to pass, and all too weak of light.
None are pure who, dying from the womb,
have ever-closer drawn to gaping tomb;
yes, look around. Where is the one
whose virtues brightly blaze like sun?
We all are faded, grimy, dark and dim,
with not one wing like the seraphim
or burning angels; if you hate
another's failing, you have but to wait
and you will find a worse in you;
I know it, for I live this, too.
No hypocrite with prance and preen
has ever proven true; the shine and sheen
to which they polish their outer face
will rub away and leave disgrace,
dishonor, the greenish, sickly pale
of one whose life is owed to hell.
Judge lightly, friend, judge lightly; who judges most
will surely find the devil in his boast;
still seek to split the right from wrong
and let none gull you with a song,
but know: we all are doomed to fall,
our splendor smashed, at trumpet-call.

Anton Wilhelm Amo

Spirit is purely active;
the senses do not bind it.
The passions do not chain
the undivided mind.
Who can bow to fate is wise,
having an inkling of God;
his words will be remembered
to everlasting ages.

Star of Ghana, Axim's child,
rising in all-circling sky
above the lands of the earth,
shine splendidly! None may doubt
your contribution of light
which, joined to uncounted stars,
lights the night of human life.

This World of Woe, So Wonderless, So Bland, So Sad

This world of woe, so wonderless, so bland, so sad,
blasé in worldly wisdom, yet unwise,
will blather words of love, for words are all it's had,
and never will have else, for love it must despise.

The worldly sages sigh in unfulfilling dreams;
they build up vanities to light a raging blaze.
Their meanings are banal, no matter how they seem,
for love is flame so bright it would their vision daze.

Amen, I say to you, they have their one reward.
The only love they have is symbol of their hearts,
a snake that eats its tail, a self-inflicting sword,
a legacy soon lost to folly, part by part.

But you -- take care to love, not love as madmen rave,
but love that seeks the good, that by the good can save.


The roads to Zion softly mourn, her women raped beside;
within the sanguine city square the dandled infant dies.
In streets the ruthless sword unties the husband from his wife;
in every house and every home it strips away all life.
With fury and with burning wrath the Lord became our foe,
to ruin every standing wall and render every woe
until the sabbaths come to end, and all the feasts have failed,
and law as coward flees away before the whip and flail,
and prophet's visions surely cease (their lies the Lord detests),
and babies' blood pours gushing out upon their mothers' breasts.
The joy of all the endless earth has vanished in the flame.
Completion of all beauty's life became a jeering name.
A gnawing, biting, hungry void a ruthless need now gives
as mothers boil bonny babes that other babes might live,
and women eat their children sweet, the ones for whom they care,
for none the aching famine leaves, and none the famine spares.
On holy temple precinct steps are priest and prophet slain;
on street and porch and burning field the people fall like rain --
the young, the grown, the sagely old, all bloody dusty ground,
and maid and gentle youth are wed among the corpses found.
Our end drew near, relentless, sure, like beat of constant drum;
our days like coins were numbered small -- and now our end is come.
But though I fall in tears aside, yet still my tongue might say
his love endures forever and aye, is new again each day,
and he is yet our portion sure, whatever fickle fate,
and he is good with gloried grace to those who for him wait --
But, Lord! You reign forever on your everlasting throne!
Do you forget your children now and leave us all alone?
Return us to your bosom, Lord, that we may be restored!
--Are we cast off forevermore, in wrath to be ignored?

Monday, July 20, 2020

Two Approaches

I've noted before that you can generally group ethical approaches on the basis of whether they treat consequence-based reasoning, obligation-based reasoning, or character-based reasoning as fundamental -- an ethical approach could use any and all of the three, but maintaining consistency generally requires treating one as more direct and definitive than the others. This is not a mere matter of classification; it has some practical relevance.

In the United States, our discourse and vocabulary for handling ethical issues concerned with racism has historically shown a clear and obvious deontological bent, treating obligations and rights as fundamental. This is largely due to the fact that most of the major and influential figures in the Civil Rights Movement, despite their many differences from each other, tended to frame their own work in deontological terms. The resulting vocabulary is a bit mixed -- it doesn't descend from a single kind of deontology -- but it clearly suggests both a deontological understanding of racism and a deontological approach to addressing it: human and natural rights, dignity, a focus on intent, an emphasis on the importance of coming up with rules and guidelines that everyone in every circumstance can follow to fulfill their duties to each other.

However, the U.S. (and much of the West) has a culture that naturally tends consequentialist. It's a future-looking culture that emphasizes choice, harms and benefits, and consumption measured by satisfaction and dissatisfaction. In the U.S., even people who are definitely not consequentialist will tend to slip into consequentialist-sounding ways of describing ethical situations, and consequence-based arguments in practice tend to serve as a lowest common denominator for everyone: when people find themselves in apparently intractable arguments, they tend to shift to talking in terms of consequences on the assumption that this will make more sense to their interlocutors than whatever the arguments were in which the discussion getting bogged down. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, we have seen an increasing tendency to talk about ethical issues of race in consequence-based terms. This is clearly what is behind a lot of the increasing emphasis on 'systemic racism', which in practice tends to be defined in terms of harms and lack of benefits. Likewise, it's clearly involved in the usual 'equity, not equality' slogans, when you press people to explain what they mean. It's also seen in the revolt -- sometimes quite intense -- against focusing on intent in the traditional Civil Rights manner. Perhaps the most obvious example of the attempt by consequentialists to seize the discourse on race from the deontologists is the tendency to hold that 'color blindness' is itself racist. From the traditional deontological perspective, this is obvious insanity -- even if you wish to qualify it (and some would), it is the right kind of thing to aim at when you are interested in upholding standards that apply the same to everyone and treat each person simply as a person, a decent first approximation of how to oppose racism. But it's obvious why a consequentialist would want to get rid of it: 'color blindness' will directly block most consequence-based reasoning about racial issues, and those kinds of consequence-based reasoning it lets pass it will subordinate entirely to a focus on intentional treatment of others. Likewise, the practical approaches consequentialists often prefer instead of color-blind rules have many of the features that deontologists have historically seen as associated with racism.

When deontologists argue with consequentialists about racism, there is no direct reconciliation; the fundamental accounts of the central issue will differ in such a way that the two sides will inevitably be using terms differently. And since both sides tend to regard this is an area of life filled with non-negotiables, the argument is not going anywhere.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that neither consequentialism nor deontology is the right approach to ethics! But character-based approaches are mostly minor players in our current disputes.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Fortnightly Book, July 19

I have been going back and forth all weekend about what to do for the next fortnightly book; I'll likely be busy with both of my courses, so it makes sense to do a re-read or something quite short, but I hadn't wholly settled on anything. But someone (the Darwins, I think) mentioned that they had recently been re-reading The Screwtape Letters, and it was there on my shelf staring me in the face, so I think re-reading The Screwtape Letters is what I'll do. It's been a while, in any case.

The Screwtape Letters was originally serialized in 1941 in The Guardian (the major Anglican newspaper that closed doors in 1951, very definitely not to be confused with the periodical today called The Guardian, which only took that name in 1959). "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" was published in 1959, and is usually added to the original 31 letters. Lewis consistently held that it was one of the easiest books to write but also one of the most unpleasant, and, despite the popularity of the Letters, refused requests to write more. The work touched off a minor literary genre of its own, as there are now dozens of 'letters from hell' works that use the format of 'demonic ventriloquism', as Lewis called it.

John Cleese did a very famous audiobook version of it; I have it recorded somewhere so I will have to see if I can dig it up. Cleese captures the urbane satirical malice of Screwtape almost perfectly. There was also a dramatization of the work a few years back through Focus on the Family; I think I'll try doing that as well. In any case, my schedule for the next two weeks looks very much like I could do these at least as audio-in-the-background while doing other things that need to be done, like preparing for next term, routine grading, and the like.

Voyages Extraordinaires #52: Un drame en Livonie

The man was alone in the night. He passed like a wolf between the blocks of ice piled up by the chill of a long winter. His lined trousers, his "khalot", a sort of rough cafetan in cow's hair, his cap with folded down ear flaps, only imperfectly defended him from the harsh winds. Painful cracks split his lips and his hands. The edge of his fingernail gripped the tip of his finger. He was traveling through deep darkness, under a low sky whose clouds threatened to turn to snow; it was already the first days of April, but it was at the high latitude of the fifty-eight degrees.

He refused to stop. After a halt, perhaps he would have been unable to resume walking.

Around eleven in the evening, he stopped, however. It wasn't because his legs were failing him, nor because he was short of breath, nor because he was succumbing to fatigue. His physical energy was equal to his moral energy. And, in a loud voice, with an inexpressible accent of patriotism:

"Finally ... the border ... he cried, the Livonian border ... the country's border!"

(My rough translation.) Un drame en Livonie (in English translation, A Drama in Livonia) is based loosely on the Dreyfus Affair. The Baltic state of Livonia (modern day Estonia and Latvia) is at the border of the Russian Empire, existing in a territory that has long been contested by the powers on either side. Because of this, it is heavily split in two directions, one German and one Slavic. To try to solidify the border, the Russian Empire is subjecting Livonia to a process of forced Russification, and, as one might expect, the tensions are very high. Things boil over when a promising young bank boy, Poch, is murdered at an inn while escorting a significant sum of money to the bank. Dimitri Nicolef, a major voice for the pro-Slavic community in Riga, is at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he is accused of the murder. The accusation is amplified by the Johausens, the powerful banking family on the pro-German side of the divide, and as word spreads, so does mob anger. And what can a professor with money problems do when evidence, wealth, and mob are against him? Nothing at all.

Since Verne was publishing in a family-friendly periodical, he has to tie this all up in a way that makes it less dark than the direction it is heading suggests. Nonetheless, vindication does not always arrive swiftly enough to save the innocent.