Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Mount Some Bold Eminence

Leave, then, the prison of your own reasonings, leave the town, the work of man, the haunt of sin; go forth, my brethren, far from the tents of Cedar and the slime of Babylon: with the patriarch go forth to meditate in the field, and from the splendours of the work imagine the unimaginable glory of the Architect. Mount some bold eminence, and look back, when the sun is high and full upon the earth, when mountains, cliffs, and sea rise up before you like a brilliant pageant, with outlines noble and graceful, and tints and shadows soft, clear, and harmonious, giving depth, and unity to the whole; and then go through the forest, or fruitful field, or along meadow and stream, and listen to the distant country sounds, and drink in the fragrant air which is poured around you in spring or summer; or go among the gardens, and delight your senses with the grace and splendour, and the various sweetness of the flowers you find there; then think of the almost mysterious influence upon the mind of particular scents, or the emotion which some gentle, peaceful strain excites in us, or how soul and body are rapt and carried away captive by the concord of musical sounds, when the ear is open to their power; and then, when you have ranged through sights, and sounds, and odours, and your heart kindles, and your voice is full of praise and worship, reflect -- not that they tell you nothing of their Maker, -- but that they are the poorest and dimmest glimmerings of His glory, and the very refuse of His exuberant riches, and but the dusky smoke which precedes the flame, compared with Him who made them. Such is the Creator in His Eternal Uncreated Beauty, that, were it given to us to behold it, we should die of very rapture at the sight.

John Henry Newman, "The Mystery of Divine Condescension".

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

The Purest Fountains of Natural Reason

We may say that the Morals of this Philosopher are infinitely Sublime, but at the same time, pure, sensible, and drawn from the purest Fountains of Natural Reason. Certainly, a Reason destitute of the Lights of Divine Revelation, has never appear’d with so much Illumination and Power. And as there is not any Duty omitted by Confucius, so there is not any besides those here mentioned. He greatly extends his Morals, but not farther than needs must; his Judgment ever telling him how far he must go, and where he must stop. In which he has a very considerable Advantage, not only over a great number of Pagan Writers, that have Treated of Things of this Nature, but likewise over several Christian Authors, who abound with so many false, or over-subtil Thoughts; who almost every where surpass the Bounds of their Duty, and who give themselves up to their own Fancy, or ill Humour; who almost always digress from that just Mean, where Virtue ought to be plac'd; who, by their false Pourtraitures do render it impossible to our Practice, and consequently make few Virtuous Men....

...Every Thing herein is Solid; because that right Reason, that inward Verity, which is implanted in the Soul of all Men, and which our Philosopher incessantly Consulted without Prejudice, guided all his Words. Thus the Rules which he Prescribes, and the Duties to which he Exhorts, are such, that there is no Person which does not immediately give his Approbation thereunto. There is nothing of Falsity in his Reasonings, nothing Extream, none of those frightful Subtilties, which are observ'd in the Moral Treatises of most Modern Metaphysicians, that is to say, in Discourses where Simplicity, Clearness, and Perspicuity ought to prevail throughout, and make itself Sensible to Minds of the lowest Rank.

From The Morals of Confucius, a Chinese Philosopher. This book, originally published in 1691, is an English translation of an earlier French work generally attributed to Jean de Labrune (a French Protestant minister better known for his historical works, who died in 1743), and somewhat more probably attributed to Louis Cousin (a royal censor through whose hands a number of Confucius-related works, including the Sinarum Philosophus, which is the Latin translation of Confucian texts on which this book is based), but in reality we just don't know who wrote it. The particular examples of moral treatises of 'Modern Metaphysicians' that the author has in mind when he talks about "frightful Subtilties" are Nicole's Essay on Morals and Malebranche's Treatise on Morals.

The Balm, the Tears, the Fragrant Charity

by Maurice Baring

You healed the sore, you made the fearful brave,
They bless you for your lasting legacy;
The balm, the tears, the fragrant charity
You sought and treasured in your living grave.
The gifts you humbly took you greatly gave,
For solace of the soul in agony,
When through the bars the brutal passions pry,
And mock the bonds of the celestial slave.

You wandered in the uttermost abyss;
And there, amidst the ashes and the dust,
You spoke no word of anger or of pride;
You found the prints of steps divine to kiss;
You looked right upwards to the stars, you cried:
“Hosanna to the Lord, for He is just.”

Monday, March 01, 2021

The Humean Account of Scholastic Philosophy of Nature

 In Treatise 1.4.3, Hume gives his account of broadly Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy, and it's an interesting insight into early modern views of the 'schools'. (Early modern philosophers often don't really elaborate much on what they see as the problems with the schoolmen, so it's nice to have an actual account.)

Hume takes Peripatetic philosophy to be fundamentally motivated by two problems.

(1) the problem of how a composite thing can be one (simplicity)
(2) the problem of how a changing thing can be the same (identity)

These are not minor problems; Hume thinks they are genuine and quite serious, and that there is no easy solution to them. We do in fact face apparent contradictions in both these cases, since we psychologically tend to elide similar and related perceptions but are at the same time able to recognize them as distinct. The 'ancient' way of handling this has at least an initial promise, although Hume thinks it ultimately fails: "feign something unknown and invisible" which remains the same through the variations and one in the composition. 'Feign' is a semi-technical term for Hume; the result of feigning is a fiction in something much like the sense of a 'legal fiction' and the original meaning of the Latin term: a thing made, a construct. We construct this unknown invisible something and suppose it to exist. This unknown invisible something is substance or prime matter. (Hume is not alone among early modern critics of scholastic philosophy in not making a sharp distinction between substance and matter.) This does have the apparent advantage of navigating the contradiction:

The peripatetic philosophy asserts the original matter to be perfectly homogeneous in all bodies, and considers fire, water, earth, and air, as of the very same substance; on account of their gradual revolutions and changes into each other. At the same time it assigns to each of these species of objects a distinct substantial form, which it supposes to be the source of all those different qualities they possess, and to be a new foundation of simplicity and identity to each particular species. (T, SBN 221)

This line of thought naturally leads to the notion of 'accidents'. We never find colors, sounds, tastes, shapes, and the like in isolation, which means that, if we are supposing substances, we always find them associated with substances, and "The same habit, which makes us infer a connexion betwixt cause and effect", that is, on Hume's account custom based on constant connection, "makes us here infer a dependance of every quality on the unknown substance" (T, SBN 222). Once we have accidents, though, we have room for 'occult qualities' and 'faculties' or causal powers, which are accidents that are themselves only supposed and not known or ever experienced. And the tendency to attribute human psychological movements to the world around us leads from there to things like 'sympathy' and 'horror vacui' to top it all off.

All of this, on Hume's basic empiricist principles, is untenable. We get unknown somethings piled on unknown somethings. Because of the copy principle, if we don't ever have any experience of something, we have no actual idea of it. Assigning words to these unknown somethings gives us the illusion that we know what we are talking about when in reality, we don't. And by the separability principle, anything that can be conceived of distinctly can exist separately, so the entire justification of substance and accidents, and the notion of 'inherence in a substance' becomes completely unworkable. 

Hume's actual criticisms depend almost entirely on these two principles, so rejecting them both (which any Aristotelian would) will evade the objections he specifically identifies. It is, however, an interesting (and unusual) attempt actually to give an account of basic ideas in Aristotelian philosophy and explain why they would be initially attractive.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Fortnightly Book, February 28

 Maurice Baring (1874-1925) was born into an extremely wealthy banking family, and had an excellent education; he had a facility for language, and so went into the diplomatic service, which he found he hated. He did discover that he loved all things Russian, though, and first began to get a name by reporting on the Russo-Japanese War. He converted to Catholicism in 1909, and served with distinction in World War I. The end of the war led him to experiment with drama and novels (he had before then primarily written poetry, essays, and the occasional short story), and it was as a novelist that he became truly famous. He spent the last years of his life suffering from Parkinson's disease and other incidental illnesses.

For the next fortnight I will be reading two of Baring's novels. The first, The Coat Without Seam (1929), is the tale of a man who is haunted by the tale of a relic, the seamless robe of Christ, which keeps popping up in his life; the second, In My End Is My Beginning (1931), is a historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. I'll be quite busy this week and next for a number of reasons, but Baring has a very readable style, so it shouldn't be difficult to do them both.

The Original Blast and Miracle

The Magician is the Man when he seeks to become a God, and, being a usurper, can hardly fail to be a tyrant. Not being the maker, but only the distorter, he twists all things out of their intended shape, and imprisons natural things in unnatural forms. But the Mass is exactly the opposite of a Man seeking to be a God. It is a God seeking to be a Man; it is God giving his creative life to mankind as such, and restoring the original pattern of their manhood; making not gods, nor beasts, nor angels; but, by the original blast and miracle that makes all things new, turning men into men.

G. K. Chesterton, "Magic and Fantasy in Fiction".

Saturday, February 27, 2021

George MacDonald, Phantastes


Opening Passage:

I awoke one morning with the usual perplexity of mind which accompanies the return of consciousness. As I lay and looked through the eastern window of my room, a faint streak of peach-colour, dividing a cloud that just rose above the low swell of the horizon, announced the approach of the sun. As my thoughts, which a deep and apparently dreamless sleep had dissolved, began again to assume crystalline forms, the strange events of the foregoing night presented themselves anew to my wondering consciousness. The day before had been my one-and-twentieth birthday. Among other ceremonies investing me with my legal rights, the keys of an old secretary, in which my father had kept his private papers, had been delivered up to me. As soon as I was left alone, I ordered lights in the chamber where the secretary stood, the first lights that had been there for many a year; for, since my father’s death, the room had been left undisturbed. But, as if the darkness had been too long an inmate to be easily expelled, and had dyed with blackness the walls to which, bat-like, it had clung, these tapers served but ill to light up the gloomy hangings, and seemed to throw yet darker shadows into the hollows of the deep-wrought cornice. All the further portions of the room lay shrouded in a mystery whose deepest folds were gathered around the dark oak cabinet which I now approached with a strange mingling of reverence and curiosity....

Summary: It is the day after the twenty-first birthday of Anodos, whose name means 'the way up', although by an appropriate pun you could also read it as 'without way'. He will indeed have to change from being a pun or caricature of himself, aimless and without way, to ascending. In a little cabinet hidden away in a secretary that he inherited from his father, he will find a little woman, who shows him a vision of Fairy Land and promises he will enter it. This indeed happens the next day, when his bedroom becomes a forest.

He soon comes across a little cottage with an old woman and her daughter, who warn him of some of the more obvious dangers of the forest, and in particular the Ash and the Alder, who are malicious trees. After he leaves their cottage, partly ignoring their advice, he has to flee the Ash, and is saved, for the moment, by the Beech, who out of love gives him a special protection to carry with him. He eventually comes across a remarkable bit of marble covered with moss. Cleaning off the moss, he finds that the outer part is soft and also removable, like alabaster, and he scrapes that off, as well, discovering the form of a beautiful maiden. He is inspired to sing to her, and by the power of his song she wakes, but flees him.

Setting out to find her, he comes across a knight in rusty armor, Sir Percival, who warns him of the seductive enchantments of the Maid of the Alder, into whose trap he had fallen and for which reason he will not polish his armor until he has finished a quest. Anodos simply resolves not to be trapped, and continues after his Marble Lady. Soon he finds a white lady who is something like her, but discovers all too quickly that it is the Alder herself, who is working with the Ash. By the wiles of the Alder Maiden, he loses the protection of the Beech, and just narrowly avoids being killed by the Ash. After further adventures, in which he again ignores kindly advice, he enters the cottage of an ogress, and there discovers his Shadow. Now he has a second motivation beside finding the Marble Lady, to get rid of the Shadow, a terrible black shadow which will not disappear even when an ordinary shadow would. It also makes everything that falls into it seem ordinary and plain, as if were not something from Fairy Land. He falls in with a girl who carries a small crystal globe that gives out a beautiful harmony if lightly touched. Out of curiosity, he holds the globe too roughly and it shatters and she separates from him.

Other adventures follow. He comes to a fairy palace, in which there is a library in which reading the books makes you seem like you are living what the book describes, and he reads the story of Sir Cosmo of Prague, who discovers a lady in an enchanted mirror and dies to save her. He discovers that the statues of the palace dance, and only return to their pedestals when he enters the room, and among them he eventually finds the Marble Lady. Singing to her, he frees her again, but again she flees him.

If all of this seems a little random, it is so deliberately; the story is episodic, constructed out of dream-like scenes that have no obvious direct connection. But in Fairy Land, even mere juxtapositions have a deeper connection. All these things will tie together. He will meet the girl with the crystal globe again; he will learn more about Sir Perceval, who will slay the Ash, and Anodos will eventually become his squire. Sir Perceval has a connection to the Marble Lady. And all of these things are thematically bound by the notions of service and knighthood -- 'knighthood' in fact being originally a synonym for 'service'. The Shadow is tied up with Anodos's arrogance, and at one point he even tries to justify it on the grounds that he is above the common mass of people and can see through the enchantments that they take for granted. He repeatedly fails to listen as seriously as he should to the advice of persons of humbler station than he. He thinks that he can avoid the temptation of the Maid of the Alder simply by resolving to do so, failing to consider the significance of the warning of Sir Perceval, who had fallen into her trap despite (as Anodos will later discover) being morally a far superior person to Anodos. His thinking of the Marble Lady as his lady is presumptuous. At one point, he falls in with two brothers and joins with them in saving a kingdom; they both die and he alone survives. He later starts thinking of himself as an equal of Sir Galahad, despite the fact that he already knows that the two brothers who died were far better knights than he.

It can be good to have an Ideal, when it raises you to be higher, but there is a grave danger in it. Pursuing Ideals sometimes tangles us up with our Shadows; we become proud. In such cases, we must learn the lesson of Anodos:

I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood. In nothing was my ideal lowered, or dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself for a moment beside it. Indeed, my ideal soon became my life; whereas, formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal.

We err, wander, when we try to see ourselves in the ideal; the foundation of heroism is not our own fancied greatness but doing hard things humbly and small things well. It is easy to set out to find your Ideal; but the thing that you really must do is lose your Shadow.

C. S. Lewis famously said that Phantastes 'baptized his imagination', which I think is not always fully understood. A baptism is a death. That is the whole point of a baptism. But it is not a mere death; it is a death into a new life. What Lewis found in the work, and which is undeniably there, is Death. Death, not as a monster, not as an end, but as a sweetness that opens up rather than closes down the world. It is easy to see why Lewis, who struggled through much of his early career with a very dark pessimism about the world, would be so affected, so startled, as it were, by an imaginative vision in which Death was good and noble and sweet to the mind. It was not a change of understanding, nor a change of conscience, but quite literally a change of imagination. But much of what we call the world is not a matter of understanding or conscience, but merely a matter of how we imagine things to be. Changing that can change much. Phantastes is a fairy tale; it does not establish, it does not prove, it does not exhort. It does not even really show the world itself in a different way. But it does provide a context for learning a new way of imagining the world. That is not everything, but it is a basis for much else. And that is a lesson we all must learn at some point; we could put it in the words of Novalis in the epitaph to the last chapter: "Our life is not dream, but it ought to become one, and perhaps will."

Favorite Passage:

One peculiarity of these books, or at least most of those I looked into, I must make a somewhat vain attempt to describe.

If, for instance, it was a book of metaphysics I opened, I had scarcely read two pages before I seemed to myself to be pondering over discovered truth, and constructing the intellectual machine whereby to communicate the discovery to my fellow men. With some books, however, of this nature, it seemed rather as if the process was removed yet a great way further back; and I was trying to find the root of a manifestation, the spiritual truth whence a material vision sprang; or to combine two propositions, both apparently true, either at once or in different remembered moods, and to find the point in which their invisibly converging lines would unite in one, revealing a truth higher than either and differing from both; though so far from being opposed to either, that it was that whence each derived its life and power. Or if the book was one of travels, I found myself the traveller. New lands, fresh experiences, novel customs, rose around me. I walked, I discovered, I fought, I suffered, I rejoiced in my success. Was it a history? I was the chief actor therein. I suffered my own blame; I was glad in my own praise. With a fiction it was the same. Mine was the whole story. For I took the place of the character who was most like myself, and his story was mine; until, grown weary with the life of years condensed in an hour, or arrived at my deathbed, or the end of the volume, I would awake, with a sudden bewilderment, to the consciousness of my present life, recognising the walls and roof around me, and finding I joyed or sorrowed only in a book. If the book was a poem, the words disappeared, or took the subordinate position of an accompaniment to the succession of forms and images that rose and vanished with a soundless rhythm, and a hidden rime.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended. 

Doctor of Peace

 Today is the feast of St. Grigor Nerkatsi, Gregory of Narek, Doctor of the Church. From the beginning of his "Litany for the Church and the Ark of the Lord":

Gathered we all in the holy, universal, apostolic church,
we earthlings in circles, sing there in many groups,
praising with the myriads of spiritual beings angelic;
we join the circles of the luminous kind.
We bless the One coming to you,
the Most Holy Trinity, (with whom) we plead.

You who are above the cherubic arch, the watchtower of the four-faced beings,
and are worshiped by the full circle of the angelic kind,
O Triune essence
who willed to establish this rock at the hands of the holy apostles,
an impregnable city by (your) deliberate miracles,
foursquare, in the midst of the universe.
You made her glorious, radiant from the foundations (up),
brilliant, beyond the brilliance of the Ark.
And you adorned her beautifully, befittingly lavish,
the daughter of Sion that is above.
The many groups of singers there
join their voices with the heavenly ones.
We bless the One coming to you,
the Most Holy Trinity, (with whom) we plead.

[The Festal Works of St. Gregory of Narek, Abraham Terian, ed. and tr., Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN: 2016), pp. 121-122.]

Friday, February 26, 2021

Dashed Off IV

love, grace, fellowship as Trinitarian

We do not have purity from ourselves but are upraised to it.

We know of no love incapable of wrath.

Acts makes clear that the household/family itself is important to the Church.

distinctions and the Trinity:
-- Sabellian
-- -- 1. purely conceptual
-- -- 2. founded conceputal
-- -- 3. modal
-- orthodox
-- -- 4. relative
-- tritheistic
-- -- 5. compositive
-- -- 6. count

categorical vs hypothetical prayer
-- hypothetical includes impetratory, categorical includes adoration

Ps 88:21-22 as a template for canonization of saints (cp. Inveni David)

"The totus christus is christus victor." Barth CD IV/3.1

All of the kinds of cause are implicit in the final cause.

Maimonides' gracious ruse interpretation of sacrificial ritual

an emptiness is blowing like a wind across the plain;
the sorrows fall in torrents in a never-ceasing rain

"In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction." CS Lewis

Arrogance is blind to simple wisdoms.

Gersonides: separate immaterial intelligences as the law, order, and rectitude (equilibrium) of phenomena

"No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity." Seneca
"Two most beautiful things will follow us wherever we go, universal Nature and our own virtue....All that is of the greatest worth for a man lies outside the power of his fellow men, and can neither be given nor taken away."
"Once virtue has hardened the mind, it renders you invulnerable from every quarter."

A human emotion is as it were on its way to rational thought.

We do not merely eat food; we make of it a meal, and meal-making is social by its nature -- shared recipes, shared techniques, shared cuisine and style. To make a sandwich or a tempura or a curry is to make it with a host of others, participating in something shared.

God, loving us, gives us grace that we might have fellowship with Him.

the major repulsive characterizations: self-absorption, dishonestly, desperation, pushy cheerfulness

Legal bans are always and only bans to the limit of feasibility.

Spinoza is closer to right when one recognizes that substance is related to accident and mode as final cause; the problem, of course, being that Spinoza denies final causes.

final cause
-- of action
-- of form
-- of existence
-- -- as subject of inherence
-- -- as external source of being

Helen vs. Penelope

All saints recapitulate their ancestral Christ.

Liberty cannot be distinguished from usurpation except with respect to common good.

as-it-were-filial piety toward the natural

Wealth requires the building of material traditions (although individual wealth is sometimes, even often, derived from cannibalizing material traditions already built).

the accumulation of deteriorations

Equality is sometimes used as a hostage-shield for undermining support networks that solve genuine problems, while pretending that no alternative solutions need to be provided.

Much of our sense of Northern and Celtic myth is derived from Christians preserving Northern and Celtic myths.

"Divine grace, predestined in Christ to be given to the whole world, is secretly at work in the whole sphere of history, and thus all myths, philosophies, and poetic creations are innately capable of housing within themselves an intimation of divine glory." Balthasar

Professional codes of ethics must be interpreted not as restrictions of rights but as protections of them.

the warning passages in Hebrews: 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29

the end-use problem in education

negation as failure and 'not-necessarily-p implies not-p'

distributive vs collective pantheism

the arm of God in the Magnificat as the Son of God (Rosmini)

Professional ethics are developed individually and refined cooperatively.

"Need is the stimulus to concept, concept to action." Steinbeck

"...a great many people are capable of returning to virtue's path if punishment is waived." Seneca

Homeschooling is the natural matrix of all schooling.

When bishops do not do what is required to purify the Church from within, it always happens that the Church is purified by its enemies from without.

Scripture in text, Scripture in proclamation, Scripture in prayer, Scripture in Church doctrine, Scripture in Church practice

All successful human cooperation, however complex, gets its success from the success of component cooperations constituted by two or three people.

the hyper-LARPing character of almost everything in modern society -- politics, art, religion, science

professional ethics and the demonstrative regress (the ends of the profession qua service serving as a check and means of refinement)

Narrative is the natural language for experimentation -- think of a Faraday memoir. This is suppressed by the Methods format of modern papers, but even there it is not wholly eliminated. Every experiment has a plot, every experiment has a theme, every experiment has characters (the experimenters, the participants, the equipment). Every experiment needs to work narratively as well as abstractly, and it is by thinking through the logic of the narrative that you uncover biases. The convention of this particular 'genre' abhors the deus ex machina.

philosophical field / attention space / system of networks of alliances and oppositions

Politics is a realm of approximations.

"The provisionality of myth must allow itself to be judged by the finality of the Gospel, so taht in this finality the world of myth may attain to its rightful rank and expressive value." Balthasar

natural theology of myth
-- 1. myth as evidence of human tendencies
-- 2. myth as a moral language
-- 3. myth as expression of virtue of religio
revealed theology of myth
-- 1. preparatio evangelica
-- 2. spoiling due to original sin
-- 3. mythmaking as subcreation
-- 4. True Myth

sources of natural religious practice: vow, symbol, experiential association, which together create precedents, which are then mythologized

the light of the Two Trees in Tolkien a depiction of the light of art undivorced from reason

amicable populations vs. political alliances

ethnic vs national uses of flags

Human rights should be upheld, but human rights discourse in partisan politics should be regarded with suspicion, because it is used as a Powerful Justifier, and Powerful Justifiers in partisan politics always need to be regarded cautiously.

As means to the ends of civil society, states have primary (easing and protecting citizen life by preventing interference and impediment), secondary (serving as a forum for negotiation and adjudication), and fallback (stepping in when nothing else can work) functions; state decadence consists in the inversion of the order of these functions, so that fallback functions begin to be treated as primary and primary functions as a sort of safety net for state action rather than civil ends.

the ism vs the istic

If it's an existential crisis, you won't be able to solve it by means of a political party.

"Being as such by itself to the very end 'causes wonder,' behaving as something to be wondered at, something strikign and worthy of wonder." Balthasar

language as kenosis of logos

Levi-Strauss on Father Christmas

Intuitions are not private languages but communicable.

The horror of evil arises from desecration.

the novel as a response to the collapse of the epic
-- this suggests naturally that kinds divide into a few groups
-- -- 1. reclamation: try to find new ways to reclaim epic qualities
-- -- 2. stabilization: try to find a new equilibrium with similar functions to those of epic
-- -- 3. acceleration: try to eliminate epic qualities entirely and replace them with the anti-epic

subcreative fall (art used for domination)

heroisms of the truth, of the good, of the beautiful

conscientious objection & avoiding the profanation of the Image of God

Observation discloses not merely the transient but also the invariant or (relatively) permanent; it implies of suggests something beyond the immediately observed, so that by quite ordinary logical links one observed fact, properly understood, implies other observable facts, and suggests yet other observable facts.

Logic is an instrument of explication.

We can make the same moral claims while expressing different moral sentiments.

To have a meaning is to be a means to a communicative end.

heart-warming as an aesthetic concept

There is a significant, although not absolute, difference between the secure and the insecure working class.

Acts 9: Saul in persecuting the Church persecuted Jesus; this anticipates and grounds the Pauline doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ.

the joy so deep it is almost like sorrow

Luthien, Melian, and Galadriel are all more important and more powerful than their husbands.

Most critical theory that one finds in actual application is elitist in motive and in structure, and is received by academics precisely because it gives them permission to regard with contempt, with dismissal, or with scoffing the masses in their uncritical ignorance.

Societies most often deteriorate through common failings.

"Undoubtedly, the passions need reason. Without it, some would not survive; others cannot be aroused and stimulated sufficiently to produce feelings of wonder." Rosmini

To Show a Heart Grief-Rent

To Keep a True Lent
by Robert Herrick

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No; 'tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Great Philosophy

 ...A great philosophy is not a philosophy without reproach. It is a philosophy without fear.

A great philosophy is not a dictée. The greatest is not one that has no flaw.

A great philosophy is not one against which there is nothing to say. It is one that has said something.

And it is even one that had something to say. Even if it could not...[s]ay it.

It is not one that has no defects. It is not one that has no empty places. It is one that has full places.

Charles Péguy, Notes on Bergson and Descartes, Ward, tr., Cascade Books (Eugene, OR: 2019) p. 43.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

For Olden Verse that Smacks of Love and Wine

When I Have Passed Away
by Claude McKay

When I have passed away and am forgotten,
And no one living can recall my face,
When under alien sod my bones lie rotten
With not a tree or stone to mark the place;

Perchance a pensive youth, with passion burning,
For olden verse that smacks of love and wine,
The musty pages of old volumes turning,
May light upon a little song of mine,

And he may softly hum the tune and wonder
Who wrote the verses in the long ago;
Or he may sit him down awhile to ponder
Upon the simple words that touch him so.

James Matthew Wilson has a really nice reflection on Claude McKay at the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

A Poem Re-Draft

Seven Incantations

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are known,
three for power, three for splendor, one that stands alone,
mighty as the morning sun, hidden as the night,
locking and unlocking doors between the dark and light.

First, to use a power you must hold it deep inside,
thus in power's fire's flames unburning to abide.
Dying to your shadow frail, life's borders you will cross;
worthy minds alone may make that journey without loss,
getting by returning thence a threefold work and might:
earth, by which the runes of lore are opened to your sight;
water giving vision of the future to the mind;
flame reforging heart and thought to greater mode and kind.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are taught,
three for power, three for splendor, one most highly sought.
Force they have for changing, for they change your inmost name;
those who have partaken thus, no longer are the same.

Speak the second spelling and a greater flame descends,
sevenfold its working borne on seven burning winds,
placing strength within the heart and crown upon the head,
lore of those who have advised and force of those who led.
Sightedness of eagle and the subtlety of snake,
fishful swimming through all dreams as though they were a lake,
divination's guidance like the tortoise in his shell,
elephantine toughness to endure the dark and fell,
kinship with all creatures good in land and sky and sea:
by this incantation's might the mind of bonds is free.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are learned,
three for power, three for splendor, one on which they turn;
rooted are they deep within the universe's rite,
cosmic in expression of the liturgy of light.

Rare indeed the one who finds the third high Elven song;
only those should seek it out whose wills are sure and strong --
not with elemental force nor living souls it pours;
stars instead that rule the worlds with might in endless stores.
By the power of this rite the acolyte may rise,
walk among the rolling suns and change unchanging skies,
master of all charm and shaping, gramarye and chant,
from the cosmic tree receiving seeds of flame to plant.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are sought,
three for power, three for splendor, one beyond all thought,
signs of power testifying to a higher world,
seven words within whose hearts the universe is curled.

Charm of binding, too, may sound and subtle sages find,
ways to share the course of thought and mingle flesh and mind,
weaker than the flame of stars, yet endless hearth of light,
warm against the winter cold, against the shadows bright,
a never-ending flame that burns with never-ending sign,
a friendship high and hale in which two hearts will intertwine.
Burdens born from trouble may be shared like heavy load;
thought with thought may travel and share a weary road.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are made,
three for power, three for splendor, one will never fade,
armaments to shake the earth, to walk the spirit way,
inner secrets of the spheres brought down to realm of day.

Sickness has no power; by a word it is unwound,
medic more availing than mere mortal man has found.
Leprosy it washes into skin both new and clean;
blindness it dispatches, giving eye its healthy sheen;
tongues are freed for speaking, lameness let to leap,
tumors brought to level and deep pain made gentle sleep,
souls transformed to healthy life and minds made newly sane,
and by it, too, there is undone the weakness of all strain.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm are found,
three for power, three for splendor, one perfects the round,
full of living spirit and of life unending source,
infinite in wonder and unlimited in course.

Death itself has weaker sway on those who know the end;
spell there is to beat it back and bounds of life to bend,
giving to the body's flesh a force to be unharmed,
unfettered by the graveyard with a life thus rendered charmed,
giving to the mind a light that dark of grave may flee,
something of the life of youth and youth's agility;
such a might is given to the one endowed with rhyme
such that even death may quail, though only for a time.

Seven incantations in the Elven realm resound,
three for power, three for splendor, one for godhood crowned.
By their vibrant power souls in holy place have trod,
changed in stages, bit by bit, to something like a god.

Nectar and ambrosia sweet may give the grace of youth,
wisdom like to ancient sage, eternity of truth.
Power beyond power such as gods alone may know
brings the final chantment as it sets the air aglow,
bright apotheosis laid in layers like the sand,
greater by the growing as it piles band on band,
higher than the mountains, higher than the crystal sky,
higher than the shining stars that live and do not die,
farther than the final sphere, farther than the end
step by step in endless way the final spell shall wend.

Seven incantations sound in Elven land and hall:
three for power, three for splendor, one above them all.


 Today is the commemoration of St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who had been ordained by St. John the Apostle. He was killed in his eighties, probably a bit after AD 150; according to tradition, he was killed by being burned alive.

From the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians (chapter 3), probably written around AD 117, a bit after the death of St. Ignatius of Antioch, with whom Polycarp corresponded:

I am writing you these comments about righteousness, brothers, not on my own initiative but because you invited me to do so. For neither I nor anyone like me can keep pace with the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul. When he was with you in the presence of the people of that time, he accurately and reliably taught the word concerning the truth. And when he was absent he wrote you letters; if you study them carefully, you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that has been given to you, which is the mother of us all, while hope follows and love for God and Christ and for our neighbor leads the way. For if anyone is occupied with these, that person has fulfilled the commandment of righteousness, for whoever has love is far from all sin.

[Michael W. Holmes, ed. and tr., The Apostolic Fathers, 3rd edition, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007) 283-284.] 

Monday, February 22, 2021

Ptahhotep on the Ethics of Arguing

The Instruction of Ptahhotep is one of the most important surviving works of ancient Egyptian philosophy. It is an eminent example of the sebayt genre, which is governed, in the words of The Instruction of Ptahhotep itself, by the attempt to make straight the paths of the younger generation through discourse, without wearying them, and a pattern whereby princes may speak well. We do not know exactly how old this particular Instruction is; if it goes back in original form to the real Ptahhotep, who was Grand Vizier of the Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi, then it originated in the 24th century BC. The versions that we have, though, are definitely not earlier than about the 12th century BC, so either the extant version is an 'updated' version from that time, or was written probably around that time, in the Egyptian New Kingdom.

The work gives us a contextual frame. Ptahhotep is ninety-six years old, and sees the end of his life approaching. Therefore he asks the Pharaoh to hand down his authority to his son, but this also requires handing down the wisdom of ancient times. The king approves this, and we have a series of proverbs or aphorisms attributed to Ptahhotep, guiding his son in the behavior appropriate to his position.

An interesting thing is that the series of aphorisms begins with an ethics of argument, and one that captures something perennial:

1. Be not proud because thou art learned; but discourse with the ignorant man, as with the sage. For no limit can be set to skill, neither is there any craftsman that possesseth full advantages. Fair speech is more rare than the emerald that is found by slave-maidens on the pebbles.

2. If thou find an arguer talking, one that is well disposed and wiser than thou, let thine arms fall, bend thy back, be not angry with him if he agree (?) not with thee. Refrain from speaking evilly; oppose him not at any time when he speaketh. If he address thee as one ignorant of the matter, thine humbleness shall bear away his contentions.

3. If thou find an arguer talking, thy fellow, one that is within thy reach, keep not silence when he saith aught that is evil; so shalt thou be wiser than he. Great will be the applause on the part of the listeners, and thy name shall be good in the knowledge of princes.

4. If thou find an arguer talking, a poor man, that is to say not thine equal, be not scornful toward him because he is lowly. Let him alone; then shall he confound himself. Question him not to please thine heart, neither pour out thy wrath upon him that is before thee; it is shameful to confuse a mean mind. If thou be about to do that which is in thine heart, overcome it as a thing rejected of princes.

On Talbott on Augustine

Thomas Talbott on Augustine on hell

For based upon his interpretation of various New Testament texts, Augustine insisted that hell is a literal lake of fire in which the damned will experience the horror of everlasting torment; they will experience, that is, the unbearable physical pain of literally being burned forever. The primary purpose of such unending torment, according to Augustine, is not correction, or deterrence, or even the protection of the innocent; nor did he make any claim for it except that it is fully deserved and therefore just. As for how such torment could be even physically possible, Augustine insisted further that “by a miracle of their most omnipotent Creator, they [living creatures who are damned] can burn without being consumed, and suffer without dying” (City of God, Bk. 21, Ch. 9). Such is the metaphysics of hell, as Augustine understood it.

This is an extraordinary misreading of the quoted passage from Augustine. In the sentence quoted, 'they' clearly does not refer to "living creatures who are damned" but to things like salamanders, i.e., beings that were thought to be able to live for a short time in fire. The reason they are relevant in context is that God's ability to create such wonders is thus a reason not to rule out, out of hand, the possibility that Christ's comments in Mark 9 refer to the body, and not just the soul. Nor are we talking about "being burned"; the phrase in ustione sine consumptione means "burning without being burned". Nor does Augustine 'insist' in this chapter on what Talbott claims, because Augustine doesn't think it's possible to know completely what will happen (he goes on at great length in this book arguing that there are things we can't reason certainly about but only know by experience). He is discussing a particular passage of Scripture, Christ's comments about the worm and the fire in Mark 9. He presents three possibilities, that the words of Mark 9 refer only to the spirit, that they refer to both body and soul, and that they refer to body alone; he thinks the first is not a reasonable reading, and he thinks the third is an easier reading of the passage than the second. Of those two, however, he says that everyone should pick the reading they please, recognizing that we do not yet have full knowledge of the things to come. Thus the passage is not metaphysical, but almost entirely exegetical, and the only thing that Augustine insists on here is that bodies will experience pain (if that is how we wish to translate dolor here) from the fire. The animals in the fire example is put forward simply to say that the bodily interpretation of Christ's words cannot be ruled out on grounds that it would make Christ say something impossible. He is not claiming that the damned are like salamanders; he is merely claiming that we can't go around ruling out positions on the ground that God can't make bodies that endure in fire.

This is a common error in reading Augustine, namely, taking some particular thing he says as a categorical assertion. But Augustine's natural style is discursive; he explores rather than lectures. He will rule things out, but he often leaves things open; he will often prefer positions without insisting on them; and he will develop views at length without actually asserting them. He is also much more, as we would say, skeptical than generally recognized; that is, he will often criticize positions for requiring knowledge we could not have. And this is very true whenever he discusses the afterlife; indeed, throughout Book 21 of The City of God he criticizes various positions on this ground. He does think we can and should believe certain things about the afterlife; but this is based on what he thinks is the reasonable range of exegetical positions that can be taken about the explicit statements of Scripture, not on 'metaphysics'. There is no 'metaphysics of hell' in Augustine.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Yet Thought May Grace Them More

Look Home
by St. Robert Southwell

Retired thoughts enjoy their own delights,
As beauty doth in self-beholding eye;
Man's mind a mirror is of heavenly sights,
A brief wherein all marvels summed lie,
Of fairest forms and sweetest shapes the store,
Most graceful all, yet thought may grace them more.

The mind a creature is, yet can create,
To nature's patterns adding higher skill;
Of finest works with better could the state
If force of wit had equal power of will.
Device of man in working hath no end,
What thought can think, another thought can mend.

Man's soul of endless beauty image is,
Drawn by the work of endless skill and might;
This skillful might gave many sparks of bliss
And, to discern this bliss, a native light;
To frame God's image as his worths required
His might, his skill, his word and will conspired.

All that he had his image should present,
All that it should present it could afford,
To that he could afford his will was bent,
His will was followed with performing word.
Let this suffice, by this conceive the rest,
He should, he could, he would, he did, the best.

Plagues of Egypt (Re-Post)

As today is the feast of St. Pietro Damiani, I am re-posting last year's post for the feast.

Today is the feast of St. Peter Damian, so I thought I'd talk a little a bit about his letter 78 to John of Lodi, in which he discusses the plagues of Egypt, interpreting them spiritually as a description of wordly life, and connecting them to the Ten Commandments. As he says, "the plagues that occurred in Egypt are nothing but wounds. And what was this heavenly Law if not medicine for these wounds?" (pp. 172-173). He interprets the plagues thusly:

First Plague: Water into Blood, "when the mind, blind to its own condition, disturbs and violates the purity of the true faith" (p. 173) -- faith, like water, gives nourishment. The first commandment is the remedy for this vice, insisting on the purity of divine worship. (Damian actually quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 as the first commandment, and takes it to cover both Dt. 5:7 and 5:8.)

Second Plague: Swarm of Frogs. Frogs are noisy, like "heretics and philosophers" (p. 173), and they live in the mud, just as the heretics and philosophers who chatter nonsense about the faith make their home among the unbelieving masses. The remedy for this vice is the commandment against taking the name of the Lord in vain.

Third Plague: Swarm of Gnats, "the vice of wandering and restlessness" (p. 174), since by their stinging they make it impossible to stay in one place. This restlessness leads to treating sin lightly, and thus as remedy God in the Decalogue commands that we keep the sabbath holy as a day of rest. (As an interesting side note, St. Peter reads the first three commandments as Trinitarian: the first is appropriated to the Father, the second to the Son, and the third to the Holy Spirit, and notes in favor of this that it was the third plague that the magicians of Egypt ascribed to the "finger of God" in Exodus 8:19, which is of course, a name for the Holy Spirit. And, of course, there is the old tradition that the first three commandments, pertaining to God directly, were written on the first tablet and the rest on the second.)

Fourth Plague: Swarm of Flies, which Damian, influenced by St. Isidore, interprets as dog-fleas, which leads to probably the most strained of the interpretations. Dogs are not respectful to their parents, and their fleas make them especially bad-tempered, so the remedy for this is honoring your parents.

Fifth Plague: Death of Cattle. To commit adultery is to be like the beasts, as when Jeremiah 5:7-8 associates adulterers with horses, so the remedy for this is the command against adultery. (This sounds a bit strained, but actually I think this is a quite salvageable association, because cattle and prosperous fertility are associated in the ancient world.)

Sixth Plague: Wounds and Boils. Wounds suggest hatred; boils suggest pride; their festering suggests anger. So the sixth commandment, against killing, is applied as a medicine to it.

Seventh Plague: Hail Mingled with Fire. Ice and fire are opposites, but here they are combined. "Thus those who steal the property of others are both frozen in regard to fraternal charity and on fire with the ardor of their cupidity" (p.177). The thundering and lightning of the storm suggests fear, and the plague is quite clearly one that would be damaging to property. Thus the remedy is the commandment against stealing.

Eighth Plague: Locusts. Locusts are little creatures that destroy all life, so they are fitting symbol for slanderers and false accusers, destroying all the good in their path, ruining harvests of good deeds, and gnawing at the lives of others with specious lies. Thus the eighth commandment, which remedies it, is the commandment against false witness.

Ninth Plague: Darkness on the Land. The coveter of another's wife is someone who acts from an interior darkness, a secret unfaithfulness in his heart. Thus God commanded Israel not merely that they should not run away with or defile their neighbor's wives, which the commandment against adultery covered, but that they should not even covet.

Tenth Plague: Death of the Firstborn. St. Peter takes the death of the firstborn to represent the self-poisoning character of our attachments to worldly things and pleasures, by which we lose our spiritual inheritance rights. Thus the remedy for it is the tenth commandment, not to covet our neighbor's goods.

"On Mount Sinai, that is, on the heights of a holy way of life, we must heal all these plagues that we endured in Egypt, all the internal forms of disease that we had contracted on the even ground of the secular life" (p. 180).

One can wonder whether anything can be made of all this, but even if the Damianian interpretation is wrong in some aspects, (1) no Christian can deny that Egypt represents the worldly life; (2) it is entirely plausible that the plagues in some ways represent the sins of Egypt -- for instance, even commentators with no intention of doing any allegorical reading have often noted that the striking of the waters as the very first volley is a blow against the Egyptian religion, in which the Nile was closely linked with the gods, which, as can easily be seen, fits the scheme; so (3) the only question really is whether we should divide up the plagues individually, as Damian does, or whether we should simply take them collectively.

Peter Damian, Letters 61-90, Blum, tr. CUA Press (Washington, DC: 1992)

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Unheated Darkness

 As things are no longer going backwards here, but slowly, albeit very slowly, returning to normality, I thought I'd say a few things about the recent Texas crisis.

There are a few things that are important to grasp. First, unlike most states, Texas has an independent electrical grid. This grid is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, a non-profit organization overseen by the Public Utility Commission of Texas (the general regulatory agency for utilities). Second, February and March are in normal years the least problematic months for the electrical grid in Texas; most of Texas has mild winters most of the time, and heating is largely done by propane and natural gas, so it's standard for significant energy maintenance to be done in February -- local utilities ask ERCOT for permission to power down plants for maintenance and upgrades, and ERCOT assesses the impact on reliability (for instance, you don't want to have all the plants in one place shutting down at the same time) and gives its permission. As you might expect, this is something that has to be done considerably in advance for maintenance and upgrades actually to be done. During the storm, they suddenly started getting peak demand from all over, and had to ask local utilities to start up powered-down plants again; sometimes this was possible, sometimes it was not because of the cold weather. Third, starting February 13, a winter storm, commonly called Winter Storm Uri, developed in the Pacific Northwest and swept across the entire United States. This storm was an unusual event. For the first time, the National Weather Service put all 254 counties of Texas under Winter Storm Warnings. The entire area experienced very low temperatures; when I had a chance to check on Monday morning, we were at 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 degrees Celsius). To put that in perspective, our average low for this time of year is 44 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius). Here in Austin we didn't quite beat the record low for Februry (8.8 degrees in 1996), but keep in mind that getting close to or even beating the lowest temperatures on record is going on all over the state, not just in one part.

I mention all of these things because most people get their news from political sources, and it's good to have a baseline so one can assess; if you thought you understood the situation and did not know most of the previous paragraph, then I'm sorry to say that, regardless of what sources of information you have been using, you are in reality as ignorant as you were before you began.

From this point on, what I experienced at ground level. I went to bed on Sunday knowing that temperatures were expected to drop even further than they had and that some people had had outages as the storm swept across the state. Because there was a likelihood of blackouts, my college had canceled all classes by that point for both Monday and Tuesday. At 1:40 am on Monday, my power went out, and I received a text at 2:16 am from Austin Energy saying:

Due to record electric demand, Texas electric grid operator is directing rotating outages to protect electric grid reliability. Outages typically 40 mins or less. Length and frequency depend on severity of event. Prepare for possible power interruptions due to mandated rotating outages.

(That was the last direct text received until Wednesday.) I went back to sleep. Just before 7 am, when I woke again, the power was out, it was getting quite cool in my bedroom, and I used my phone to look online to see how things were going. The only thing that the Austin Energy twitter account had tweeted other than 'conserve energy' tweets was a 3:30 tweet that rotating power outages were lasting longer than expected and a 5:40 tweet that rotating power outages were lasting longer than expected; then there was a 7:15 series of tweets that gave a bit more information by identifying the problem as ERCOT requiring that all non-critical circuits shed load. I had meanwhile, to reduce the chances of things going bad, thrown my essential refrigerator stuff in bags in the snow outside, and would a few hours later throw my essential freezer stuff out there as well. But so far, everything still clearly stated that the outages were rotating, and a common theme was that places still with power should shut down non-essential uses so that they delay in rotation could be shortened. This, I think, was a very grave mistake, since it was essentially a message to people that the reason they were sitting in the dark in increasingly cold rooms was that other people were hogging the electricity. This does not seem to have been true -- there is really no amount that the critical circuit people could have conserved that would have changed anything, given the shed-load requirements. But it is one of the things that I think intensified people's anger. At 10:45 am, the message changed: "To serve critical loads and protect the overall reliability of the grid, customers experiencing an ERCOT-directed outage will remain out until conditions improve." So for nine hours, Austin Energy was telling people that they were going to do rolling blackouts, but the rolling never came. And they did not explain what was meant by "until conditions improve". When they had a press conference at 12:30 pm, they still said "until conditions improve" and did not explain what that meant. It was remarkable reading the Twitter threads, as it began to dawn on everyone that the most probable meaning was "until the storm ends", which by that point we all knew would by sometime on Wednesday. You can imagine the fury, particularly since "critical loads", while including areas with hospitals, also included a lot of downtown Austin and some very wealthy people in nice high-rise apartments that remained very noticeably bright and shining and infinitely out of reach.

In retrospect, I spent far, far too much of my phone battery trying to get updates from organizations that managed not to communicate anything of importance in a timely and useful fashion. But at that point, I realized that there was nothing to do but batten down and try to outlast it.

My condominium-style apartment is sandwiched between two others and the insulation is mostly not bad. The weather was subfreezing and windy on Monday; my thermostat had an independent battery, so I could at least tell the temperature inside, and it got down to 44 degrees Fahrenheit (about 7 degrees Celsius). My water heater is natural gas, so I still had hot water, which was much more than most people had at that point. I layered up and put my good sleeping bag on the bed along with the covers, and slept that night wearing a ski mask. In the morning the temperature was 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), which would end up being the low point -- the drop in wind helped a great deal, and the sun occasionally would peak through the window. But it remained very cold. And then on Tuesday evening, the pipes in my garage broke with a CRACK! I rushed out to the garage and it was literally like a rainstorm had broken in the garage, with water pouring down on my car through every join and cut in the sheetrock and trickling down the walls from the corners of the ceiling. After a lot of scrambling, I found the internal cut-off, and now had no water. I shut down the water heater and, exhausted, went to bed much less convinced that I could in fact outlast anything.

I woke up in a less dark mood, and began to assess what I could do with no power and no water, indefinitely. I had six gallons of emergency drinking water laid up for hurricanes and the like. A work order had been put in for a plumber to make an emergency fix, but it was entirely uncertain how long it would take -- with no power, plumbers were limited in what they could do, and already by that point the cases of burst pipes were mounting up on an impressive scale. (And in fact the plumber came in the middle of my writing this post on Saturday.) I considered a hotel, but (1) finding a hotel is very difficult when neither you nor the hotel have any electrical power and (2) the hotels were already packed. Fortunately, the Darwins helped me link up with a family in the area that had power intermittently and still had water, so I stayed there for the night. In the morning I went home to do some clean-up, then back to sleep and shower. Because of the condition of the roads and the lack of traffic lights (either nonexistent or flashing red), and the fact that we were still having subfreezing nights, I went back while it was still daylight. The same thing on Thursday; I got home at about 10:30 am, and when I got there the power had been on for about thirty minutes. I checked the basics -- light, heat, refrigeration, internet (the internet was not a luxury, because it was another line of communication and extends the battery on my phone, which uses the wifi when I'm at home) -- and then, since I still had no water and did not know yet if the power was going to be consistent, went and stayed with my hosts one more night. Friday it was clear that the power was steady, so I stayed in my apartment last night.

Water was still a worry, so I scraped up all the snow in my little backyard for the toilet -- snow, of course, takes up much more volume than liquid water, so all of that snow melted to water for about three emergency flushes. As I noted, I had a good amount of drinking water, although that needed to be rationed if it was going to cover drinking and cooking both for the indefinite future. I wasn't too worried about showers -- wet wipes for the body and corn meal for the hair are actually more than adequate. (The former is a camping trick and the latter is what people used on the frontier and in the Great Depression, and can sometimes be found as a beauty spa hair treatment to this day.) Brushing teeth would require water, but it doesn't require much -- currently, in fact, the standard advice from dentists is not to wet your brush and use only enough water to rinse out the toothpaste and clean your brush, and frankly, while toothpaste helps hygiene in the long run, it's not a necessity for brushing. Because of COVID, I don't have to go many places, so washing clothes was not really an issue. The big, big problem, the one that I spent a lot of time thinking about, was cleaning dishes. There are camping tricks to minimize water when cleaning dishes, but I had very little of what would I'd need to implement those. Unless you can sand-blast your dishes, it's almost impossible to clean dishes without water, and the less water you use, the more important it is to sanitize, which (beyond a small bottle of alcohol and the last of a small bottle of bleach) I did not really have. Without distilled water for cleaning, there would really be no recourse but to set some of the drinking water aside for cleaning, as well, but I really needed a better solution.

I took thought about what I could do with respect to this. My nearest grocery store, while generally very good, was obviously under a lot of strain, and I probably would not be able to get much from it before a few days were out. In Texas, practically every major corner has either a gas station or pharmacy, so if you live in the city, there's almost always one in walking distance. I actually live within easy walking distance of at least three corner pharmacies and  at least five gas stations. So on Friday I walked down to Walgreens, the closest pharmacy, to see whether any options would open up to stretch my water out; my thought was that I could then visit all the pharmacies and gas stations and, scrounging up something from each, put together a plan that would work until more options opened up. The Walgreens was operating under limited capacity -- their pipes had burst too -- but they were open; and today I walked to the second closest pharmacy, CVS, and picked up some more things. Finding anything that would help directly wasn't possible -- water, for instance, was sold out, as were the more obvious things like bleach -- but indirectly I picked up a few things to stretch the water out, like a greater variety of food that didn't require cooking or could be cooked without water, and non-water things to drink. And so was the state of my plan; I was going to keep trying over the next several days to find an available hotel room, even if only for a single night, which would help. I figured that as power and water came back across the city, at least some people would filter back out of hotels and go home (which indeed seems to be the case). But, as I said, I got a call from the plumber in middle of writing this post, at about 5:00 pm. They did an emergency fix of the problem in the garage -- it was four distinct breaks that had occurred roughly around the same time, three in the ceiling, one in the wall. No wonder it had been raining in the garage. They finished up about 7 pm. The first thing I did was start the dishwasher. 

Things are not quite back to normal. We have been under a Boil Water Notice since Wednesday -- since I had no water at all, I had not had to worry about that -- although it's mostly at this point a precaution. I do have another minor leak in a bathroom, but it doesn't require shutting off all water; I can just use the other bathroom until things calm down and I can get a plumber in to look at that much more minor, although somewhat more complicated, problem. I'm still keep the snow-water for a few days, because at this point who knows whether anything else will break. And the devastation has been extraordinary. The plumbers were talking about how they'd been working all day and had least nine other homes in the area with similar problems, and needed to try to get as many done that day as they could. I work at a college that has twelves campuses; nine of them have serious plumbing issues and the other three are still being assessed. The sanctuary at my church was flooded this week, calf-high, and most of the other churches in the dioceses have had similar problems. Churches, of course, are big open buildings that tend to get cold if not heated in winter, and they are required to have sprinkler systems for fires; and the fire system cannot be completely insulated and still meet city code. Businesses all over the region were flooded when their pipes burst in the unheated darkness. While most of the serious problems have been solved, there are still people without electricity because of downed powerlines, and there are still people without water, because water mains broke. Plumbers and other tradesmen will be busy for the entire next week just solving the most essential emergency problems.

When I started looking around yesterday and this morning, I found that a lot of the discussion was not devoted to anything of any practical use, but was chatter about Senator Cruz having early on in this mess taken his family to Cancun. And I confess I felt something a bit like rage that, of all the things people could have focused on in this tragedy, this was the thing they latched onto. What moral and mental disease, I thought, leads people to treat all of this as a point for partisan propaganda, and not recognize that in doing so they are very bad people? Have people, if I may use a bit of Texan vulgarity, put their self-absorbed heads so far up their cavernously windy asses that this is what they think is important? Senator Cruz is not a Texas state official; he has no authority over ERCOT or local utilities. He has no personal influence over any decisions concerning the Texas electrical grid. He certainly is not able to stop the weather. There was nothing he could have done in Texas itself that would have been of practical use at the time. Speaking as someone who went through it, if it had been put to a vote, I would have voted for any family who could getting out the region, without exception, and been glad that that was one more family spared the whole thing. No doubt there are people who like misery to be spread around, especially in the direction of their political opponents. No doubt, too, there are things he could have done that would be more useful for political campaigning, although Cruz has the secure political position he does not because he is likable but because he is famously difficult to like, so people know that he will drive Democrats crazy; perhaps he could have done fundraising somewhere; perhaps he could have stayed as a purely symbolic thing. But it made me quite angry that in the face of all this, so many people still play their catty partisan games rather than focus on anything of any practical value whatsoever. Much of this, however, was from putting it side by side with having had to sleep under a pile of blankets and sleeping bag in a house cold enough that not doing so would have been a hypothermia risk, not knowing how long my emergency water would last. That was perhaps not a fair juxtaposition. Having come out the other side only slightly worse for wear, I am inclined to interpret it all a little more charitably. No doubt things look very different when viewing it all from elsewhere, and I have no problem with the jokes and memes (a few of which are even funny) or even the political swipes (some of which are even fair game) on their own; and it is true, too, I have a different temperament from most people, and thus cannot assess them entirely by my own sense of things. And perhaps more importantly, for some people it's a way of lightening things, which is not a bad thing at all. I still won't take people seriously who take the matter to be some gravely serious one, though.

And it's important to keep a sense of proportion over all. I would have gotten through regardless. The last I looked at the death toll, it was about 70 people, mostly from hypothermia, mostly from going outside for unknown reasons. Having family in Montana (and thus a decent set of winter gear), having done my share of camping over long years, having a stoic temperament, having a good (if not, in retrospect, completely adequate) set of emergency supplies laid in, I was well off and well prepared, more than many who got through it as well. I was not really worried or distraught at any point, except for a short period Tuesday night, and that was mostly due to exhaustion. I even enjoyed some (although not all) of the problem-solving and improvising. And I had friends who could make connections for me that made it go much more easily. Everybody I have met yesterday and today has been cheerful at getting, finally, to the point of clean-up and repair. This world is a world of challenges, and this challenge has been met. On to the next.

Friday, February 19, 2021

A Poem Draft


I'd wake you,
marble maiden fashioned
by my hand
from willing stone,
but the power of the spirit
none may have but God,
and God alone.
Work of man,
by skill ensculpted,
may you be a higher thing,
will and reason
be your blessing
down from heaven's endless ring.
A breathing form
of sweet spiration
you have come to me
in dreams;
as if softly sighing
your face to vision seems.
May it be, and be so real,
but, ah! I worry,
if inspired turns your kiss,
that I should then expire
from a storm of fatal bliss!

Thursday, February 18, 2021

O' Mice an' Men

  So my power and heat are back on, although we don't know yet how consistently, and, of course, the water will be the big bugbear. Building after building after building has had plumbing problems, so it's anyone's guess how quickly things will move. Things are still busy in the meantime.

To a Mouse
by Robert Burns

On Turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785.

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
’S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss ’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Gang Aft Agley

 If I seem to have fallen off the face of the earth, in a sense I have. Central Texas is currently in a major crisis due to a winter storm. My power went out at 1:40 am on Monday, and a lot of others at the same time, with the expectation that the blackouts would be rolling; however, due to grid problems, it never came back on. My pipes burst from freezing yesterday, another problem people are commonly having, so there went water as well. I am currently staying with friends in an area in which blackouts have actually been rolling, so I am well taken care of for now. I’ll post about it in more detail when things stabilize, but things will be sparse around here for a bit.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fortnightly Book, February 14

Es lassen sich Erzählungen ohne Zusammenhang, jedoch mit Association, wie Träume, denken; Gedichte, die bloss wohlklingend und voll schöner Worte sind, aber auch ohne allen Sinn und Zusammenhang, höchstens einzelne Strophen verständlich, wie Bruchstücke aus den verschiedenartigsten Dingen.

George MacDonald's first prose work is perhaps his most influential. It was published in 1858 under the title, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. It was one of the earliest works in the nineteenth-century Arthurian revival, and has had considerable influence on writers of the fantastic ever since, including, of course, C. S. Lewis, who was particularly moved by it. And it is the next fortnightly book.

The work itself, an attempt to write a fairy tale for adults, is heavily influenced by Romanticism, particularly that of Novalis, whose comment above is part of a number of quotations at the beginning of the book. The part quoted above is given the following translation in my edition:
One can imagine stories without rational cohesion and yet filled with associations, like dreams; and poems that are merely lovely sounding, full of beautiful words, but also without rational sense and connections--with, at the most, individual verses which are intelligible, like fragments of the most varied things.

Dream-like it certainly is. Anodos (whose name means 'path upward' or 'ascent', but is also could be read, by a play on words, as 'pathless') after his twenty-first birthday finds himself in Faerie, where he seeks his ideal woman, the Marble Lady. He will have to unlearn his ideals in order to find what is really worth having. He is, like many Victorian gentlemen, inspired by a conception of chivalry, but he finds that this conception does not actually make him fit for genuine chivalry and knighthood. We forget that the word 'knight' literally just means 'servant'; the heart of it is the nobility not of birth but of service.


George MacDonald, Phantastes, Wm. B. Eerdmans Company (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997).

Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla


Opening Passage: From the author's foreword:

In this book I have had written down old accounts about the chieftains who had dominion in the North and were speakers of the Danish tongue, basing myself on the information given me by well-informed men; also, on some of their genealogies according to what I have learned about them, some of which information is found in the pedigrees which kings or other persons of exalted lineage have about their kin; and still other matter follows ancient lays or legends people have entertained themselves with. And although we do not know for sure whether these accounts are true, yet we do know that old and learned men consider them to be so. (p. 3)

Summary: In the Saga of the Ynglings, we learn of the rise of the royal dynasties of Scandinavia, as the Aesir under the warlord-magician Óthin invade the Scandinavian lands and begin a violent and terrible war with the Vanir. The war eventually burns itself out, and both sides agree on a peace treaty and exchange of hostages, and the Vanir hostages among the Aesir are Njorth and his son Frey, whome Óthin sets the task of making the sacrifices for the Aesir. After Óthin's death, Njorth becomes king of the Swedes; after Njorth, Frey. Frey establishes his capital at Uppsala, and becomes an immensely prosperous king. Because another of Frey's names is Yngvi, the dynasty becomes known as the Ynglings. (To situate this a bit more clearly with respect to other literary works: Freyr is a god of plenty and harvest in Norse myth, these Ynglings are the same as the Scylfings mentioned in Beowulf, and Yngvi is the source of the name Inwë, the foremost king of the Elves in Valinor in Tolkien's mythos.) Their time is mostly a very violent and disunified time, but it is the half-mythical age in which the customs and expectations of Scandinavian society are laid down. With the Saga of Hálfdan the Black we slowly begin to tip over from a mix of myth and history into something more like history, the legendary period. Háfldan becomes ruler of the kingdom of Agder (the very southern tip of Norway) at the age of eighteen and begins a compaign of military conquest, eventually taking over the kingdom of Vestfold, half the kingdom of Vingulmork, and with considerable difficulty (but crucially, as it is the seed around which the kingdom of Norway will eventually take shape), Raumaríki. He will eventually die by accident when his sleigh falls through the ice. The Saga of Harald Fairhair gives us the life of his son as continuing the legend of the unification of Norway. Harald falls in love with the beautiful maiden Gytha, but as it turns out she has high standards, and won't marry a king so lowly that he only ruled a few counties. But she promises that she'd come to his bed if he were king of all Norway, so Harald goes about conquering all the other little kingdoms, and eventually becomes the ruler of all the little coherent kingdoms of the area. (The flight of nobles from his conquests becomes the seed of Norse colonization of the westward islands, including Iceland.) He then takes Gytha as one of his several wives. Having many wives means having many sons, and Harald's bright idea about what to do with them is to make sure they are all given the title of king and divide up his unified kingdom among them. Unsurprisingly, this is a complete disaster as none of the sons of different mothers get along with each other, and the whole realm collapses into mutual plunder, being held together only by Harald's ability to put out fires almost as quickly as they arise. It is within this context that Harald has an illegitimate son with the wife of Hákon Grjótgarthsson, one of his most important supporters. When Harald has a dispute with the Saxon king Aethelstan of England, he is able to force Aethelstan to terms, and one of his terms is that Aethelstan foster the illegitimate son, whose name is also Hákon (Haakon, as it is often spelled today). The absolutely fundamental thing that will result from this is that young Hákon will become Christian.

After the death of Harald, Eirík Bloodaxe will seize control of the kingdom from his brothers. However, in the Saga of Hákon the Good, we learn that Aethelstan sets Hákon up with a fleet and army, and Hákon comes back to Norway just as Eirík is finishing things up. The young man seizes his moment and promising the farmers in Trondheim that he will roll back some of the harsher and more oppressive laws that had been established by Harald, including the all-important one in land-conscious Norway, Harald's claim of possession of all ancestral estates. This goes over wildly well, and Hákon is declared king of Trondheim and makes good on his promise. Not only this, but word spreads like wildfire of this claimant on the crown who is like Harald but more benevolent, and the Uppland regions also declare him king; he is able to ally with other members of his family who have been scattered by Eirík's violence, and all of this makes him relatively powerful in a very short time. He is able to force Eirík to flee. Hákon remains watchful, but when Eirík eventually dies, Hákon has a ready army with no immediate threats, and uses it to subdue and harry his more aggressive neighbors, getting wealthy in the process. This allows him to consolidate in a way that had not been possible before. And the consolidation is as interesting as the conquest. Hákon is the first Christian king of Norway. The people he rules are very, very pagan, and expect their kings to do pagan things. The good will between them is extraordinary: Hákon genuinely wants what is best for his people, and he is very popular with them, being literally the best king they have ever had. Both sides want this very much to work. But over and over again it causes problems: Christian aims conflict with pagan aims, Hákon as Christian king has difficulty doing the pagan things that his people associate with their allegiance and demand that their kings do, the pagans are not happy with Hákon's pushing of this bizarre foreign religion, and none of the attempts at compromise on either side manage to satisfy anyone. The fundamental problem of the Kingdom of Norway -- that it cannot properly unify without Christianity and that Christianity is incompatible with its pagan ways -- has been set, and it looks insoluble.

Hákon eventually dies due to a wound sustained in battle with the sons of Eirík. But Hákon, looking at his options for successors, comes to an unexpected conclusion. He has no sons, so he gives the kingship to the sons of Eirík on the condition that they not harm his family and supporters. The oldest son of Eirík is called Harald, and the Saga of Harald Graycloak is the tale of his attempt to impose some order on the again-disunified Norway. It also sees the creation of another complication in the birth of Norway as a nation: the sons of Eirík had been heavily reliant on their uncle, Harald Bluetooth, who became a major power in Denmark. Thus Norway becomes in effect a vassal of Denmark. Harald Graycloak is able to expand both his power and influence in Norway, but there's only so much that can be done, and he is eventually tricked into a situation in which he is murdered.

All of this so far is, as it were, a prologue, a setting of the problem. The next stage will be the Christianization of Norway by the two Olafs, Óláf Tryggvason and St. Óláf Haraldsson. In the Saga of Óláf Tryggvason, the young Óláf is born under very inauspicious conditions, his mother being pursued by the minions of his relative Harald Graycloak, a flight that results in Óláf becoming a slave in Estonia. He is eventually rescued by a passing tax collector for King Vladimir of Rus -- the ruling house in Kiev is also Norse, of course. Óláf grows up in Vladimir's court, but eventually Vladimir begins to get suspicious of this talented and ambitious boy and rather than tempt fate, Óláf sets out to make his fortune. He will marry a Wendish princess (the Wendish royal houses are also Norse, of course). This marriage will lead him into a military alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II, whom he will help to defeat Harald Bluetooth. After his wife dies, Óláf is distraught and takes to the sea again, raiding the islands around Britain. On the Scilly Islands, he hears about a local seer, whom he unsuccessfully tries to trick. The seer then gives him a fateful prophecy:

You will become a famous king and work famous deeds. You will bring many men to the true faith and baptism, and in so doing benefit both yourself and many others. And lest you doubt my answer, let this be a token: when you come to your ships you shall encounter a traitor band, and that will lead to fighting, and you will put to death some of the band, and you will yourself receive a mortal wound and be borne on your shield to the ship. Btu you will recover from his wound within seven days and be baptized soon thereafter. (p. 171)

This is exactly what happens, and Óláf Tryggvason becomes Christian, certain that his destiny is to bring many men to Christianity and that he will benefit from doing so, so that he will be a great king achieving great deeds because of it. He will spend some time becoming important and influential and then will seize an opportune time to return to Norway and seize it from the powerful Earl Hákon, who has been ruling it as vassal of Harald Bluetooth. Óláf easily defeats Hákon, who was not popular, and as King of All Norway begins actively demanding that people be baptized as Christian or else defeat him in battle. This might sound odd to delicate modern ears, but the medieval Scandinavians didn't see religion, as modern minds are inclined to see it, as a sort of private belief; they saw it (more correctly) as an allegiance. It was why Hákon the Good, decent and generous man though he was, largely failed to achieve anything lasting, and it was why the arrogant and ambitious Óláf Tryggvason succeeds. The people had liked Hákon's results, but nothing he said made any sense. Óláf, however, marching up and down the land saying, "Be baptized or fight me!", made perfect sense. Becoming Christian was a major change of allegiance. Why would you change allegiances just to change allegiances? But a Christian king fighting for Christians, Christians making peace and security together, that was an allegiance in visible form. Many converted voluntarily. Many more fought agains it, and only converted when defeated. But they all understood it. Call it 'acculturation', if you want, but they all understood it.

Óláf will largely succeed at the things to which he sets his hand, but his greatest success will be to have laid the foundations for an apparently less successful but much greater Óláf. Óláf Tryggvason will marry again, and his new wife, Thyri, will get him involved in a war with the Wends. He will largely be successful at this, as well, but will be fatally wounded in a battle, and Norway again collapses back into a bunch of petty jurisdictions under the thumb of the kings of Denmark. Saint Óláf's Saga is about a talented young man, Óláf Haraldsson, more commonly known in his own days a Big Óláf, or Óláf the Stout, or Óláf the Fat, depending on how you wish to translate the word digri. As a teenage of a lesser royal background, he became involved in military expeditions, and thence developed the ambition to become the next King of Norway. As he is returning home, he stays a while in Normandy (Normans, of course, being Norsemen), where he is baptized as a Christian in Rouen. He comes back to Norway and gets the support of the minor Uppland chieftains. He will turn out to have an absolutely extraordinary luck, and after a chain of events will defeat Earl Svein, the primary vassal of the Danes at the Battle of Nesjar, and thus established himself firmly on the throne. But it's a precarious throne. To the east is the powerful kingdom of Sweden under the perpetually irate Óláf Skötkunung, who takes an almost obsessive dislike to the young upstart, to such an extent that he refuses to let people call Óláf of Norway by his own name 'Óláf', insisting that he always be referred to as "That Fat One".  The eventual reconciliation that St. Óláf is able to achieve on this end, marrying the King of Sweden's younger daughter, becoming friends with Óláf himself, and allying with Óláf's son, King Onund, is almost a miracle in itself.

But the more serious problem is to the south and west, in the Kingdom of Denmark and England, ruled by that unstoppable military and economic juggernaut, Knút the Great. Denmark has become far and away the greatest power in the region, and Denmark regards Norway as a vassal state. Óláf of Norway manages to avoid problems for a few years, but Knút is coming. When the storm breaks, he is able to hold him off a while -- no mean achievement in itself -- but Knút is able easily to subvert the Norwegian nobility, who are often already unhappy with Óláf's heavy-handedness, with large bribes, and Óláf soon loses his kingdom, becoming an exile in Kievan Rus.

After such success, an utter failure, and a swift one at that -- less than fifteen years all told, from Óláf's first declaration of his intention to become King of Norway to his loss of the kingdom. But for Óláf himself, it in some sense was the best thing to happen to him. Óláf had been a Christian king, and a devout one, but he had always put the Kingdom of Norway first, driven mostly by his ambition and, at times, his wrath. Having lost the Kingdom of Norway, he begins to put the Kingdom of Heaven first; no longer a king, he begins to become a saint, which is a much greater thing, and the means by which he will truly unify Norway and solve the problem that had never managed to be solved since Hákon the Good. Óláf considers giving it all up and taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but is stopped by a vision that tells him that his role is be a king for his people. So in 1029, when the major Danish vassal ruling Norway vanishes suddenly at sea, Óláf sees an opening and returns. It is not easy -- nobody wants to cross the Danes directly, and some, like Bishop Sigurth, speak directly against him, regarding him as a wicked man -- but he pulls together support, and takes the kingdom again. Which he again loses, when he dies in the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 against pro-Danish Norwegian forces, brought down by three warriors. Failure again! But things have changed, and this is perhaps symbolize by St. Óláf's first posthumous miracle: When the blood is not yet dried on his corpse, he heals one of the men who killed him.

The process of Óláf coming to be recognized as a saint is an interesting one. Knút sends his son, Svein, to be the new King of Norway, and Svein imposes harsh laws; the people of Norway are very unhappy, and nothing makes people remember an old king with fondness than misery under a new king. The people of Trondheim, Óláf's major base of support, begin to talk of Óláf as a saint, and miracles and rumors of miracles begin to spread as a result of invoking him. People who are unhappy with the acts of King Svein slowly begin to talk the same. Bishop Sigurth ends up having to flee to Denmark, and is replaced by a bishop who had known Óláf, Bishop Grímkel, who opens an investigation into Óláf's sanctity. This is actively opposed by supporters of Svein's regimes, but the latter eventually run out of excuses not to accept the signs of Óláf's sanctity, and Óláf is pronounced a true saint. More miracles, more rumors of miracles. And St. Olaf after death will achieve what everyone had failed to do before him, including himself: he shall make Norway a true kingdom and nation in its own right.

The nine sagas after Saint Óláf's Saga serve as a kind of denouement in which we see this slowly but surely happening. Óláf's illegitimate son, Magnus the Good (named after Karla Magnus, Charlemagne), is raised in Kievan Rus and is able to take the throne after five years of Svein's reign; he is able to force a peace with Hartha-Knút, Knút's son and successor, with a peace treaty in which each is recognized as the legitimate successor of the other. Harta-Knút dies first, and so Magnus becomes King of Norway and Denmark. This takes some consolidation (Svein is still in Denmark), and there is serious trouble from the Wends; but Magnus wields his father's battle-axe, Hel, in battle and has a resounding victory over the latter, and this gives him room to force Svein to concede, at least in outward show. Óláf's brother Harald, meantime, has been with the Kievan Varangians in Míklagarth, which is the Norwegian name for Constantinople, a city wealthy beyond the imaginations of any petty Norwegian chieftain. He serves as a mercenary for Empress Zoe, quickly becoming a leader among the Varangians the Empire hires, and learns an extraordinary number of new things about warfare. He is immensely successful, and returns wealthier than any Norwegian king has ever been, and with proven military cunning and ability. Things could have gone very bad, since Harald thinks he should be king, but Magnus, putting the kingdom above himself, offers to give him co-kingship, with full rights of a king, on the one condition that Magnus be recognized ceremonially as first between them. Harald recognizes that just being handed this is far better than trying to seize the whole thing through a nasty war, and accepts. The two tend not to agree; there are lots of troublemakers on both sides; and they find that it's much harder to agree on what counts as ceremonial priority than it sounds. But when Magnus dies soon after, Harald becomes the new King. He finds that Magnus's kingdom is too much to hold; he loses Denmark to Svein and struggles to keep England. Initially successful at the latter, he is killed in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and thus ends the great Viking Age.

Óláf the Gentle succeeds as King of Norway, and Norway alone; he is a peaceful fellow, and things are relatively prosperous during his reign, with the Church becoming stronger and devotion to St. Olaf becoming increasingly central to the lives of Norwegians. He is succeeded by Magnus Barelegs, his illegitimate son, who is the exact opposite in temperament to his father, and who initiates a massive series of very aggressive military projects. Except for the British Isles and Ireland, where he had significant successes for a short time, most of this came to nothing, but Magnus Barelegs would be the last King of Norway to die in battle. In the meantime, St. Óláf had been doing a miracle here, a miracle there among the common people. 

Magnus Barelegs is followed by the sons of Magnus, most notably Sigurd Jerusalemfarer; in 1107, he led a Norwegian army on Crusade to Jerusalem. He came back fabulously wealthy, with a relic of the True Cross; but in his absence, his brother Eystein had done well himself, having established the trade and military of the kingdom on a solid footing. After Eystein's death, Sigurd becomes sole king. A man from Ireland, named Harald Gilli, begins claiming to be an illegitimate son of Magnus Barelegs; it is put to trial by ordeal, and Harald Gilli passes the ordeal. Sigurd accepts this, but Sigurd's son, Magnus regards Harald Gilli with hatred. After Sigurd's death the kingdom splits into civil war. Bearing the relic of the True Cross, Magnus defeats Harald Gilli temporarily, but Harald vows to Saint Óláf that he will build him a church in Bergen if Harald defeats Magnus there, and Harald has a stunning victory; Magnus is taken and both blinded and maimed, which gives him his epithet of Magnus the Blind. Harald Gilli's death, however, leads to civil war between his sons, a long-lasting, continual civil war of attrition among them. In 1152, however, Norway is visited by a significant foreign dignitary, Nicholas Breakspear, a Cardinal sent from Rome. Cardinal Nicholas makes peace -- a tottering peace, but a peace -- among the different factions, regularizes the structure of the Church in Norway, and makes the Church of St. Óláf in Nítharos an archiepiscopal see. (He then goes back to Rome and is made Pope Adrian V.) It is a major event. Here in the middle of these endless civil wars of kings, the nation is given a unified character not by the victories of any of those kings, but by St. Óláf, who has become the patron saint of all Norwegians both in practice and in the eyes of the universal Church. This only intensifies in the reigns of Hákon the Broadshouldered and Magnus Erlingsson, who with the help of the Church consolidate the civil rule of Norway again, with the increasing unity of the Norwegians under St.  Óláf becoming more and more clear; Magnus stabilizes the royal succession, and thus is the history brought up almost to Snorri's own day.

It is a tale long in the telling (821 pages in my edition). But it moves swiftly. And one reason I've given such a lengthy summary here is that I think it is more unified in theme than one might at first think; and the theme is not merely Norwegian kings in general but how the Norwegian monarchy came to be fully established, St.  Óláf being, despite only fifteen tumultuous years as king, the fundamental turning in that story. He is not the only element, although he is the most important. The history is not simple and it is not a straightforward path. But the forging of a people into one never is.

Favorite Passage: 

...There was such fierce hatred against Earl Hákon among the Tronders that no one might call him by any other name than the evil earl. And that name stuck to him for a long time. But the truth of the matter is that he had many qualifications for leadership: first, an exalted lineage, and therewith shrewdness and sagacity to use his power, briskness in battle as well as a lucky hand in winning the victory and slaying his enemies. As says Thorlief Rauthfeldarson:

160. Hákon, heard we under
heaven no doughtier earl than
thou--but greater grew thy
glory from wars--to govern.
Athelings nine to Óthin--
feeds the raven on flesh of
fallen men--spread far thy
fame aye--thou didst send forth.

Earl Hákon exceeded everyone in generosity, and it was great ill fortune that a chieftain such as he should have died as he did. But the reason for this was chiefly that the time had come when heathen worship and idolators were done away with and Christianity took their place. (pp. 192-193)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, Lee M. Hollander, tr., UT Press (Austin: 2018).