Saturday, January 09, 2021

Mansfield Park and Hugh Blair's Sermons (Re-Post)

This is re-posted from five years ago.

Hugh Blair was a notable philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment, most famous for his work on rhetoric and belles lettres, but in direct contact with many of the major philosophical names of the period. (As an example, Blair is the intermediary between David Hume and George Campbell in their dispute over miracles.) His sermons were also widely read as excellent examples of polished homiletics. Blair's sermons are specifically mentioned in Mansfield Park:

"You assign greater consequence to the clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves? How can two sermons a week, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair's to his own, do all that you speak of? govern the conduct and fashion the manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit."

It's just a side-mention. It is also a mention by Mary Crawford, and because of that association some people have concluded that Austen -- who read sermons extensively -- was not a fan of Blair.

However, I wonder if there is more to the matter than might seem to be the case at first. Mansfield Park crosses themes with several of Blair's sermons. One that is quite noticeable is that Blair's sermons are a work Austen certainly would have read that uses the word 'constancy' in a sense much like that in which Austen uses it in the novel. Indeed, one of his sermons, Sermon XV of Volume I, is entitled, "On the Motives to Constancy in Virtue".

In the sermon, Blair imagines a man who has decided to devote himself to virtue. However, it turns out to be quite difficult:

The peace which he hoped to enjoy, is interrupted, either by his own frailties, or by the vices of others. Passions, which had not been thoroughly subdued, struggle for their accustomed gratification. The pleasure which he expected to find in devotion, sometimes fails him; and the injustice of the world often sours and frets him. Friends prove ungrateful; enemies misrepresent, rivals supplant him: And part, at least, of the mortifications which he suffers, he begins to ascribe to virtue.

Blair's purpose in the sermon is to argue that, despite occasional appearances, the difficulties of life never provide a sufficient reason to be "weary in well-doing". He raises several points to back this up. (1) Every state of life has its difficulties, so if the aim is to avoid having a difficult life, it's an aim that can't be guaranteed, no matter what one does. (2) More importantly, vice actually increases the difficulty of life even when it isn't obvious that it is doing so. Contrary to what we usually think, self-denial is not the exclusive province of virtue; self-denial, in fact, is common to both virtue and vice. Disorder in one's passions mean that some of your desires will go unmet, and whenever you are doing something wrong you are denying yourself some kind of good. (3) Difficulties associated with virtue, on the other hand, since virtue is linked with moderation of passions, are more bearable, because moderation of passion itself can ease the pain and hardship. Virtue, in other words, better prepares us for when things do not go our own way -- which, inevitably, they sometimes will. Virtue gives its bearer an independence of fortune:

It is the peculiar effect of virtue, to make a man's happiness arise from himself and his own conduct. A bad man is wholly the creature of the world. He hangs upon its favour, lives by its smiles, and is happy or miserable, in proportion to his success. But to a virtuous man, success, in worldly undertakings, is but a secondary object. To discharge his own part with integrity and honour, is his chief aim. If he has done properly what was incumbent on him to do, his mind is at rest; to Providence he leaves the event.

At the same time, while virtue may seem at first to restrict the enjoyments you can have, the truth is actually the opposite: genuine virtue allows worldly pleasures, in proper moderation and place, and adds to them its own pleasures. (4) Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy, due to the future life.

Another of the sermons in Volume I is Sermon XI, "On the Duties of the Young", in which we also find a connection with constancy:

Too many of the pretended friendships of youth, are mere combinations in pleasure. They are often founded on capricious likings; suddenly contracted, and as suddenly dissolved. Sometimes they are the effect of interested complaisance and flattery on the one side, and of credulous fondness on the other. Beware of such rash and dangerous connections, which may afterwards load you with dishonour. Remember that by the character of those whom you choose for your friends, your own is likely to be formed, and will certainly be judged of by the world. Be slow, therefore, and cautious in contracting intimacy; but when a virtuous friendship is once established, consider it as a sacred engagement. Expose not yourselves to the reproach of lightness and inconstancy, which always bespeak, either a trifling, or a base mind. Reveal none of the secrets of your friend. Be faithful to his interests. Forsake him not in danger. Abhor the thought of acquiring any advantage by his prejudice or hurt.

The whole of Sermon XI is worth reading, actually, in this respect, since a large number of themes in the sermon are shared with Mansfield Park. It's true, of course, that the moral dangers of youth are fairly universal, so it's possible that convergence rather than interaction explains the resemblances. But it is suggestive nonetheless.

Moral Judgment and Aesthetic Judgment

 One of the things that makes Mansfield Park interesting is its exploration of the interaction between aesthetic and moral judgment. Both are recognized as important in the novel -- it is important for Fanny's development, including her moral development, that she has a naturally cultivated, and not artificially distorted, taste for beautiful things. It's one of the things, for instance, that gives her the occasional boldness needed to start developing her moral strength. In doing this, MP is giving a new presentation for an old idea; as I've noted before, it is rare to find any moral philosopher in the history of ethics, East or West, who does not recognize important links between aesthetic and moral judgment. The splitting of the two in abstract discussions, as if they had little or nothing to do with each other, seems primarily to be an aberration of the twentieth-century West.

MP, however, also recognizes the danger of this interaction between aesthetic and moral judgment. They are not the same, and very bad things can come of using aesthetic judgment to perform the task of moral judgment. The Crawfords are aesthetically pleasing in almost every way. They are charming and fun. Mary is pretty in appearance and Henry is engaging in manner, and they are both lively and witty. What is more, they live their own lives almost entirely by aesthetic, rather than moral. judgment. Being human, they neither of them lack the latter, and despite having no upbringing or practice to help them, occasionally rise to good moral judgment. But their lives are aesthetic lives, lived by taste and not by principle. And, of course, the problems of this are inevitably going to show.

I think it's clear enough when you look at human behavior that people have difficulty distinguishing aesthetic judgment and moral judgment. This is not a matter of intelligence or experience; you find very intelligent and experienced people who, like the Crawfords, cannot really distinguish them at all. Indeed, you find plenty who can recognize a distinction in the abstract but in the concrete obviously conflate them. It's just a result of the fact that aesthetic judgment and moral judgment do necessarily exist in interplay, so nobody can distinguish them without reflection and nobody can do it consistently without practice. Trying to separate them completely in actual practical life would require a very unhuman ethics; but by the same token, distinguishing them takes work.

And, of course, they need to be distinguished. We see this very easily when we look at questions of condemnation; trying to use aesthetic judgment to do what moral judgment should do inevitably leads to injustice. You can walk up a very pretty primrose path to some very nasty things. We find that often (not always, but quite often) when people react with vehemence against something, they are reacting with vehemence against the aesthetics of it, and while sometimes this is quite justified as far as it goes, the vehement revulsion is not itself a moral judgement. Thus when we find cases of people responding out of all proportion to the badness of the things, I think we can usually blame it on using aesthetic judgment as if it were moral judgment.

The rule of thumb seems to be something like this. When you are condemning something, the question to ask is, "What, precisely, is the morally wrong thing here?" (This rule of thumb does not cover every kind of case. But it covers a great many of the most important ones.) Something can be aesthetically bad in general; for instance, you can have a situation that is jarring and discordant not from any particular feature but from a whole blend of things. But you can't have moral wrongness except by way of some particular things that are morally wrong. So it's important to ask ourselves, whenever, we are inclined to condemn anything, what particular thing is wrong. If we can't -- if we can't articulate what's wrong, if we find that every attempt to do so never gets out of generalities, if we find ourselves falling back on general labels -- that is at least a good sign that our inclination to condemn is aesthetic, not moral.

This is complicated by the fact that we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we are talking about something precise, when really we are just describing some general features in a lot of different ways. The real idea is that if someone has done something morally wrong by words, for instance, then this can only be by particular words said in a particular context that makes them wrong. What are they? If someone has done something morally wrong by deeds, we should be able to identify a particular action that is wrong in a particular context. We should be able to give the concrete details that don't themselves depend on abstractions and generalities. Moral judgment can involve abstractions and generalities, but it is always about something concrete, particular, definite. What is the concrete, particular, definite wrongness? If you can't say, you are probably judging aesthetically, and it is important to avoid treating this kind of judgment as a genuine moral judgment.

None of this, again, implies that aesthetic judgment is itself to be disparaged, or that it is unimportant for the moral life. It's just that we should not treat our judgments about how we experience a situation as if they were judgments about moral good and bad. Aesthetic judgment doesn't see people as people, for instance; it sees them as good or bad features of the environment. Now, it's absolutely true that a person can be a bad feature of the environment in some way; but this is not the same as being, or acting as, a bad person. There are absolutely kinds of aesthetic goodness we want built into our society, but we should avoid treating this as a superior end to ends like justice and mercy and charity, which in their different ways will often require us to have some endurance or tolerance for things we do not like, even for things we justifiably do not like, or to give some benefit of the doubt to them that makes us uncomfortable, or simply to have a sense of proportion that recognizes that there are things much, much more important than how these things come across to us. The moral judgment does not make the aesthetic judgment insignificant -- both the virtue of temperance with respect to our own actions and a good sense of proportion about those of other people, for instance, require both, clearly distinguished but clearly interacting. But we are very often unjust to people, even to people who would be justifiably condemned if we did so on better grounds and in better ways, when we make the aesthetic judgment do the work of the moral judgment.

Of course, what goes for condemnation goes for other kinds of judgment, as well; it's just that condemnation is a particularly easy point at which to see how we can go very wrong.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Feast Them Upon the Wideness of the Sea

On the Sea
by John Keats

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often 'tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be mov'd for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vex'd and tir'd,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinn'd with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody,--
Sit ye near some old cavern's mouth, and brood
Until ye start, as if the sea-nymphs quir'd!

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Counting Votes

The Presidential election is finishing up today, with the official count of Electoral College votes. It is still being completed, because, of course, the riot at the Capitol; I suppose that as we started four years ago with anti-Trump rioters acting as if the United States were a tinpot fake republic, it is less surprising than it should be to find pro-Trump rioters acting as if the United States were a tinpot fake republic. Notably the one thing that has been completely stable and unmarked by gross partisan bias through both idiocies is the Electoral College process. Not, of course, that anyone will give it its proper due; they never do.

As of my writing this, Congress is going through the states alphabetically. An official objection was taken over the Arizona slate, and rejected by both chambers of Congress (no slate can be rejected without the agreement of both chambers). There will certainly be one more official objection (Pennsylvania); each official objection has to be debated by each chamber separately, which will draw out the process. As the chances of any of the objections getting the agreement of both chambers is minute, there is no reason to expect any surprises, and any single surprise would not change the result. In 2016, I heard many nasty comments about 'proceduralism' -- by which they meant, in context, trust in the election process laid out in the US Constitution -- but an election is nothing but procedures; and the US Constitution is an immensely stable thing, difficult to manipulate, as it should be. And I suppose it's not really surprising in politics to find many of those very same people suddenly converted to absolute belief in the sacrosanctness of those procedures, at least as they imagine them to be.

The actual success of those storming the Capitol was a surprise, but as I've repeatedly noted (to deaf ears in this time of people repeatedly trying to give themselves a hysteria high), until today nothing has happened that is really unprecedented. Election Night regularly gives a major surprise; litigations, audits, recounts, inevitably ensue; people have come up with uncertified "alternative slates" before; formal objections have been made to slates before; we've had people protesting the vote count before. It wasn't even the noisiest process we've seen, although perhaps that was partly due to relatively light reporting on it. But even if you object to the noisiness of it, anyone in the entire process who used the word 'coup' or 'attempted coup' anything similar to describe anything in the process is an idiot and a moron and should be ignored on any political matter forever after. Nor, I suppose it should be noted given that the hysteria-junkies will say otherwise, is a few hundred people storming the Capitol building a 'coup', either.

The most serious thing today was not, in fact, the riot at the Capitol, but the discovery of explosive devices at the headquarters of both parties and on the Capitol grounds (all of which were discovered by law enforcement and safely detonated). Such terrorism is a more serious threat, and it is absolutely necessary to come down hard on any attempt to use terroristic threat against any part of the election process, as a warning example to any and all who might try it in the future. Unfortunately the precedent has not been as clear as it should be. 

And one suspects that no one will learn anything whatsoever; this seems the primary truth of American politics these days.

World's Wealth, Heart's Worship, and Life's Suffering

The Epiphany
by Samuel John Stone

Lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them.
... They presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
St. Mart. ii. 9, 11.

O tongue* of heaven, whose silence eloquent,
What time that night's evangel nearer fell,
Foretold the mystery of Emmanuel
To those far off, whose alien eyes intent
Kept faithful vigil toward the Orient:
Star-Pilot of the watchful and the wise,
Thus, speaking through my eastward-gazing eyes,
Win my soul on to the Divine Event.
That so, soon kneeling at the Sacred Feet
There only losing thee, my harbinger
With gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh,
I, too, may make my offering complete:
World's wealth, heart's worship, and life's suffering,
Meet for my Fellow-Man, my God, my King.

* Lingua cæli is the expression of St. Augustine, referring to the star.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Some Notable Links, Noted

* Amanda Patchin, A Jane Austen January, at "Front Porch Republic"

* Thony Christie discusses Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace at "The Renaissance Mathematician"

* Robert Pasnau, How to Read Scholastic Latin (ht)

* Jennifer Frey, Taking Humanity Seriously

* Ben Burgis reflects on the great Quentin Smith, who died in 2020.

* Anastasia Berg, Similar Minds, reviews Kate Manne's recent work. Berg notes something that I've also found odd about Manne's work, namely, the centrality of incels despite the fact that Manne doesn't seem to have much understanding of or any sympathy with them -- which is perhaps odd, because many of Manne's own arguments about men, particularly in this most recent work, are weirdly similar to arguments associated with incel forums about a sense of entitlement among women. I think for anyone who has been long online, it inevitably gets strange reading her for that very reason: her arguments often look very familiar but upside-down, as if things have slipped into the mirror universe.

* Hrishikesh Joshi has a really nice paper, "What Are the Chances You're Right About Everything? An Epistemic Challenge for Modern Partisanship", which you can read on his website. A great many people would benefit from considering carefully the argument of that paper.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Factual and Evaluative

 Bill Vallicella has a nice discussion, with his usual clarity, of MacIntyre's argument that evaluative conclusions can be drawn from factual premises. However, I think he makes a mistake, one easy to make in his reply, and it's an interesting one. He says (of the example, "This watch is inaccurate, therefore this is a bad watch"):

Speaking as someone who has been more influenced by the moderns than by the ancients, I don't see it. It is not the case that "the concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the concept of a good watch . . . ." A watch is "a portable timepiece designed to be worn (as on the wrist) or carried in the pocket." (Merriam-Webster) This standard definition allows, as it should, for both good and bad watches. Note that if chronometric goodness, i.e., accuracy, were built into the definition of 'watch,' then no watch would ever need repair. Indeed, no watch could be repaired. For a watch needing repair would then not be a watch.

The assumption that is made here is that if the concept of a watch cannot be defined independently of the concept of a good watch, then being a good watch would have to be part of the concept of a watch. But this is surely not what MacIntyre means. Rather, the claim is that the definition of a watch contains or implies a standard according to which something can be a good watch. The point is not that chronometric goodness is built into the definition of a watch, so that all watches are good watches, but that you cannot understand something as a timepiece without relating it to standards for keeping time, and from the fact that a watch is a timepiece one can recognize that between two otherwise equal watches, if one is more chronometrically accurate, it is better qua watch.

MacIntyre focuses on the timepiece or time-keeping component of the concept, but in some ways the point is easier to see with the other component of the Merriam-Webster definition that implies evaluative standards, portability. Portability is something that admits of degrees. You could strap a timepiece the size of a small alarm clock to your wrist; it would be portable, but would obviously be less portable than a normal wristwatch. Portability is in fact also relative to your end, because it is a feature describing how well a means relates to certain kinds of ends. For one kind of end, 'portable' might mean you can drive it around in a van; it is pretty clear that 'timepiece you can move around using a van' is not an adequate standard for watch-portability. As the Merriam-Webster definition says, the portability of a watch is such as to be put in a pocket, or strapped to your wrist, or strapped to your ankle, or hung around your neck as a necklace (to take the most common cases). But even granted this, not all watches are equally portable. And if the definition of a watch includes portability, this means that not all watches will capture equally well this aspect of the definition. It is not a part of the definition of a watch that it excel at portability; but it does seem implied by the very fact that portability is part of the definition that one can evaluate a watch according to its portability. And if this is the case, then it does appear that you can conclude from a watch not being very portable that it is, to that extent, not very good as a watch. The same thing is true of the 'timepiece' component and (possibly, if it is not taken merely to specify the other two) the  'designed' component of the Merriam-Webster definition.

If this is true, does this mean that "Watches are portable timepieces" is an evaluative, not a factual statement? As far as I can see, it does not. The fact that a statement includes or implies the fact that there is a particular standard of evaluation, does not itself imply that the statement is an evaluative one. "Watches can be evaluated according to how well they keep time" is, despite explicitly mentioning evaluation, a factual statement, not an evaluative one; in making the statement, you are not evaluating watches but recognizing the fact that watches can be evaluated. It is, after all, a fact that things are evaluated; it is a fact that when they are evaluated, they are evaluated according to standards; and it is often a fact whether or not something has the features that make it fit those standards or not. Because they are used for measurement, and because they may be more or less useable for such measurements, watches are as a matter of fact things that can be evaluated according to how well they serve for such measurements. Means of measurement may be more or less good; they may even be bad; but it is not intelligible to say that something is a means of measurement and yet there is no way to assess whether it is good at measuring. But it is a fact that timepieces are things used for measurement, and it is a fact that they can be more or less good at measuring; and there are facts that will guarantee that it is less good.

One could, of course, go another direction and argue that all statements are in fact evaluative; that there is no such thing as a statement that is purely factual without anything whatsoever that is evaluative. But again, that a timepiece is evaluatable according to a standard of good time-keeping seems a fact about timepieces, not an evaluation of time pieces. It's not even normative; it's just true as a matter of fact that you can evaluate the quality of a timepiece according to its time-keeping. It doesn't make any sense to talk about timepieces without any regard for whether the things in question can be assessed according to their time-keeping ability. If you were going to do that, you might as well say that I can create a watch by strapping a rock or a living mouse to my wrist: "Look at my mouse watch, it's a portable timepiece, although I have no idea even what standard might be used to assess whether it is any good at keeping time." To say it is a timepiece already implies that it can be evaluated according to its time-keeping; this does not make the existence of timepieces any less matters of fact.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Fortnightly Book, January 3

 Looking over the Fortnightly Books, I've done Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Lady Susan, Sanditon, and The Watsons, but I haven't done my favorite Austen novel, and I have other reasons to re-read it, so the next fortnighly book will be Mansfield Park.

MP is Austen's third published novel, with its first edition published in 1814 and its second in 1816. The novel was a modest success with readers -- hence the two editions in Austen's lifetime -- and although critics were slower to take notice of it, they also tended to regard it favorably. Its reputation dipped when people started reading Austen more as comic society novels, surged again a bit during the decades of the World Wars, largely collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, and then for the next several decades has maintained a status as Austen's most controversial novel. One reason for its complicated reputation is that its heroine, Fanny Price, is in several ways deliberately the opposite of what one would ordinarily expect a heroine to be, being a weak and sickly girl who cries many times throughout the work; she has also repeatedly been called a prig by readers who are unsympathetic to her. Another reason is its sophisticated consideration not just of moral questions but of differences in moralities. It also touches, even if subtly, on questions of empire and slavery.

But all of this is beside the way. MP suffers most when you try to read it as if it were a failure at being a very different sort of novel. For what it is, an exploration of constancy and how society and character affect it, it has few parallels. Most of the ups and downs of the novel's reputation, and most of the controversies tell us more about the critics than about the novel. And some of us just like Fanny Price, the girl who can be constant because she cannot merely act a part.