Saturday, January 02, 2021


Many a disciple of a philosophical school, who talks fluently, does but assert, when he seems to assent to the dicta of his master, little as he may be aware of it. Nor is he secured against this self-deception by knowing the arguments on which those dicta rest, for he may learn the arguments by heart, as a careless schoolboy gets up his Euclid. This practice of asserting simply on authority, with the pretence and without the reality of assent, is what is meant by formalism. To say "I do not understand a proposition, but I accept it on authority," is not formalism, but faith; it is not a direct assent to the proposition, still it is an assent to the authority which enunciates it; but what I here speak of is professing to understand without understanding. It is thus that political and religious watchwords are created; first one man of name and then another adopts them, till their use becomes popular, and then every one professes them, because every one else does. Such words are "liberality," "progress," "light," "civilization;" such are "justification by faith only," "vital religion," "private judgment," "the Bible and nothing but the Bible." Such again are "Rationalism," "Gallicanism," "Jesuitism," "Ultramontanism"—all of which, in the mouths of conscientious thinkers, have a definite meaning, but are used by the multitude as war-cries, nicknames, and shibboleths, with scarcely enough of the scantiest grammatical apprehension of them to allow of their being considered in truth more than assertions.

John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Part I, Chapter 4, section 1 (43-44).

Friday, January 01, 2021

Fortnightly Books Index 2020

 A bit of a chaotic year for my reading, as all my schedules were upended in one way or another, but I did get through Doyle's Sherlock Holmes works. It happened to be a fairly international year beyond that. I'm thinking for the upcoming year that I will do some more Dickens, although not his whole corpus, and some Scandinavian literature.

November 22: Maximus the Confessor, The Life of the Virgin
Introduction, Review

November 8: Richard Adams, Watership Down
Introduction, Review

October 25: George du Maurier, Peter Ibbetson
Introduction, Review

October 11: Ahmet Midhat Efendi, Felâtun Bey and Râkım Efendi
Introduction, Review

September 27: Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow; The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
Introduction, Review

September 13: Patrick Rambaud, The Battle
Introduction, Review, Timeline

August 30: Kim Man-Jung, The Nine Cloud Dream
Introduction, Review

August 16: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Introduction, Review

August 2: Brendan Hodge, If You Can Get It
Introduction, Review

July 19: C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Introduction, Review

July 5: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Introduction, Review

June 21: Nguyễn Du, The Story of Kiều
Introduction, Review

June 7: The Song Celestial (Bhagavad Gita)
Introduction, Review

May 24: Roger Scruton, Notes from Underground
Introduction, Review

May 10: Wace, The History of the Norman People (Roman de Reu)
Introduction, Review

April 26: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hounds of the Baskervilles; The Valley of Fear
Introduction, Review

April 5: Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club
Introduction, Review

March 15: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God; Monday Begins on Saturday; The Doomed City
Introduction, Review

March 1: Julian of Norwich, The Showings of Julian of Norwich
Introduction, Review

February 16: Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet; The Sign of Four
Introduction, Review

February 2: Amos Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drinkard; My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
Introduction, Review

January 12: J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Introduction, Review


Thursday, December 31, 2020

"Vex Not His Ghost!"

Midnight Mass for the Dying Year
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Yes, the Year is growing old,
And his eye is pale and bleared!
Death, with frosty hand and cold,
Plucks the old man by the beard,
Sorely, sorely!

The leaves are falling, falling,
Solemnly and slow;
Caw! caw! the rooks are calling,
It is a sound of woe,
A sound of woe!

Through woods and mountain passes
The winds, like anthems, roll;
They are chanting solemn masses,
Singing, “Pray for this poor soul,
Pray, pray!”

And the hooded clouds, like friars,
Tell their beads in drops of rain,
And patter their doleful prayers;
But their prayers are all in vain,
All in vain!

There he stands in the foul weather,
The foolish, fond Old Year,
Crowned with wild flowers and with heather,
Like weak, despised Lear,
A king, a king!

Then comes the summer-like day,
Bids the old man rejoice!
His joy! his last! Oh, the old man gray
Loveth that ever-soft voice,
Gentle and low.

To the crimson woods he saith,
To the voice gentle and low
Of the soft air, like a daughter's breath,
“Pray do not mock me so!
Do not laugh at me!”

And now the sweet day is dead;
Cold in his arms it lies;
No stain from its breath is spread
Over the glassy skies,
No mist or stain!

Then, too, the Old Year dieth,
And the forests utter a moan,
Like the voice of one who crieth
In the wilderness alone,
“Vex not his ghost!”

Then comes, with an awful roar,
Gathering and sounding on,
The storm-wind from Labrador,
The wind Euroclydon,
The storm-wind!

Howl! howl! and from the forest
Sweep the red leaves away!
Would, the sins that thou abhorrest,
O soul! could thus decay,
And be swept away!

For there shall come a mightier blast,
There shall be a darker day ;
And the stars, from heaven down-cast
Like red leaves be swept away!

Kyrie, eleyson!
Christe, eleyson!

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Third Kind of Martyr (Re-Post)

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs. A re-post from 2013.

The holy days immediately after Christmas are a curious mix. We start with St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr, the first specifically and explicitly Christian martyr, and whose martyrdom is a sort of template for other martyrdoms. We then move to St. John the Evangelist, who is according to tradition the only apostle who wasn't martyred (he was exiled, not killed). And today we meet the Holy Innocents, who are the martyrs least like anything we expect martyrs to be.

The mix did not escape our predecessors. Aquinas mentions somewhere a sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux arguing that there were three kinds of martyrdom: martyrdom in will but not in physical death, as with St. John; martyrdom in will and in physical death, as with St. Stephen; and martyrdom in physical death but not in will, as with the Holy Innocents.

Genuine martyrdom is an act of witness; but to be the sort of martyrdom celebrated by the Church it must be an act of God. As typically understood, this is by the way of the infused virtue of fortitude, which is to say, inspired fortitude, whose most encompassing act is witness in violent death. In St. Stephen we see this full complete sense of martyrdom: God acts as principal agent of the witness, Stephen through inspired fortitude is the instrumental agent of witness, and the act is able, in context, to be a complete act of witness in violent death. The relation of this to St. John is easy to see: God still acts as principal agent of John's witness, John through inspired fortitude is still instrumental agent of the witness, but as it happens the fortitude is only ever expressed in acts less than full martyrdom.

With the Holy Innocents, on the other hand, we seem to have a somewhat different situation. Nothing absolute prevents an infant from receiving inspired fortitude, but this is in a sense incidental to the question, since an infant is not in a position to be an instrumental agent through such an infused virtue but only, at best, an instrumental patient. Thus God is principal agent of the witness of the Holy Innocents, and the act of witness in violent death is complete, but the Holy Innocents are not agents of witness in the way Stephen and John are. Yet they are no less martyrs and saints. One importance of the Holy Innocents is that they show that the witness of martyrdom, if genuine, must be very much an act of God. (The medieval theology of the Holy Innocents ends up being more complicated than this makes it sound, because, of course, the Holy Innocents were Jewish boys who were circumcised. Circumcision already made them signs of Christ and is the anticipatory sign of baptism into Christ. Thus their witness to Christ is an expression of the covenant between God and Israel that is fulfilled in Christ. Thus they were already going to be saints -- but because of their deaths they participate in the victory of martyrs as well and merit the veneration of the Church. Contrary to what some mis-attribute to medieval theologians, they weren't bothered by the fact that unbaptized children could be saints in heaven, since this was actually easily accommodated, but puzzled by the sense in which they were martyrs. Yet they were also clear that not only are they martyrs, they are an important kind of martyr, as well; all martyrs in some sense die in the place of Christ, for instance, but the Holy Innocents are the only martyrs who literally died in the place of Christ.)

Pusey has a famous sermon, entitled, "God's glories in infants set forth in the Holy Innocents," in which he notes that one of the clear lessons of the feast is the dignity of children: even an infant may be a saint of God, a witness to truth, and a temple of the Holy Spirit; and we are not just called to life everlasting, but born to the call. And this dignity does not depend on their being able to engage in great projects or elaborate choices; it does not depend on their autonomy or their consciousness of their place in this world or their ability to attribute to their own existence some basic value; it does not depend on sophisticated cognitive capabilities or having identifiable interests. Their deaths are not merely of moral interest; their deaths are things to make a man tremble; their deaths show that their lives are infinitely precious. It is in the greatest of human deaths that we see the full greatness of human life; and in Christian terms, the greatest of human deaths is martyrdom, the victory that is most victorious, and infants can have it. Some infant boys who had no idea what was going on were martyred once; and thereby they showed that their lives were capable of being, in witness, the expression of the greatest goods in the world. The Feast of Holy Innocents is a feast that says a lot.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Resistance of Ideas

I have previously noted that when Hume rejects the notion that we get the idea of causation from our sense of resistance, he gives the following as part of his reason for doing so:

But, first, we attribute power to a vast number of objects, where we never can suppose this resistance or exertion of force to take place; to the Supreme Being, who never meets with any resistance; to the mind in its command over its ideas and limbs, in common thinking and motion, where the effect follows immediately upon the will, without any exertion or summoning up of force; to inanimate matter, which is not capable of this sentiment.

And I noted that this fails to do adequate justice to what can be concluded by analogy, and also that the case of the Supreme Being, given Hume's own account of our idea of God, really stands or falls with the case of the mind's command over its ideas. There is an additional problem with the latter that is also worth noting.

Malebranche, in the Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion, has an interesting passage in which he does precisely what Hume says in the above passage that we do not do, namely, attribute resistance to the case of the mind's command over its ideas:

But do you think your ideas do not resist you? Find me then two unequal diameters in a circle, or three equal ones in an ellipse. Find me the square root of eight and the cube root of nine. Make it just to do unto others what is unacceptable to ourselves; or, to take an example more suited to you, make two feet of intelligible extension equal no more than one. Certainly the nature of this extension cannot countenance that. It resists your mind. (DMR 1.8, Jolley-Scott p. 14)

He claims, in fact, that the primary difference between the floor resisting the foot and ideas resisting the mind's attempt to force them is that perception of the former is obscure and perception of the latter is clear.

Hume, I think, has very limited room with which to reject a position like this, because in order to head off a different kind of argument that the idea of causation derives from our experience of the mind's command over its own ideas, he explicitly emphasizes that we find that "The command of the mind over itself is limited, as well as its command over the body". How is this limitation of command experienced? The resistance of our ideas to our mind's manipulation of them seems a plausible answer. In the same way, if you are trying to move your arm but are finding it paralyzed, it seems that this could also be experienced as a kind of resistance. Even where it is not impossible to force our mind to think a certain way, or to move our body a certain way, you can still have some kind of resistance; it would be simply false to say that people don't think you ever have to "summon up force" in such cases.