Saturday, April 10, 2021

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter


Opening Passage: 

When the earthly goods of Ivar Gjesling the Younger of Sundbu were divided up in the year 1306, his property at Sil was given to his daughter Ragnfrid and her husband Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn. Before that time they had lived at Skog, Lavrans's manor in the Follo near Oslo, but now they moved to Jørundgaard, high on the open slope at Sil. (p. 5)

Summary: Kristin Lavransdatter is three novels, Kransen, Husfrue, and Korset, so it makes sense to divide the story along those lines.

I. Kransen (The Wreath): Kristin is born to Ragnfrid and Lavrans, and thus into an excellent family in the Norwegian gentry. Her mother, due to several infant deaths and a few other things, is quite melancholy in temperament, so her closest relations are with her father, an upright and decent man who takes seriously his role in upholding and maintaining the local society. It is a very good family life, for all that it has the sort of flaws any family life might, as Kristin will later come to realize. But it is impossible to shield children entirely from tragedy; Kristin's younger sister will be in a serious accident, and Kristin will be the victim of an attempted (but unsuccessful) rape, under conditions potentially harmful to her reputation, with the result that her closest friend dies and she must be sent off to a convent to get her away from the gossip and talk. She is betrothed to a young man from a respectable local family, Simon Darre, but in the convent she starts up an affair with Erlend Nikkulaussøn, a handsome, dashing, man with a wild past. In particular, he has been excommunicated for cohabitation with another man's wife, Eline, with whom he has a couple of children. Kristin breaks off her betrothal with Simon, and in the face of family opposition, stubbornly remaining devoted to Erlend; she eventually gets her way, and marries Erlend. At her wedding, though, she wears the bridal wreath reserved for maidens, despite the fact that she is pregnant, the pinnacle of the deception-entwined affair she has had. In part, but only in part, due to Eline's own malice, Kristin and Erlend are responsible for Eline's death.

There is a story that a reader wrote to Undset once, effusive about Erlend and his charm, to which Undset replied something like, "Dear ma'am, Erlend is a skurk (crook, criminal, villain)! Sincerely, Sigrid Undset." I think readers sometimes have a similar difficulty with Erlend that readers of Eliot's Romola have with Tito Melema; we have difficulty thinking of people who are charming and sincere as wicked. What Erlend does in seducing Kristin and encouraging the affair is quite frankly a kind of evil: he is violating his own prior obligations and hers, and he is violating the laws of God and rules of society. Kristin, to be sure, is not guiltless, but Erlend has grossly flouted his responsibilities. But Erlend also in some sense means no harm; his wrongdoing arises from his character flaw of taking the easy way out, not from any malice. His love for Kristin is without any question sincere; he is truly and honestly devoted to her in his way. He has many admirable qualities, and recognizing them is essential for understanding both the character and the story; he is brave, he is clear-headed in a crisis, he is willing to endure a great deal when he has to do so, he is extraordinarily resilient, he holds no grudges, he wants to do well by people and be responsible and be taken seriously. But he is a skurk because he has a certain kind of weakness of will and what the novel often characterizes as 'forgetfulness' -- i.e., he is not really bothered by his past wrongdoing, and thus does not really learn from it. He has a sort of perpetual youthfulness about him, which symbolizes his perpetually weak grasp on his responsibilities. There is a thoughtlessness to him that means he will do villainous things in an almost childish and boyish way. Even this is not wholly his fault; he has lived a coddled life, and being handsome and dashing and charming and valiant, had always been able to get away with almost anything -- although in the scandal over his affair with Eline, he had learned that 'almost anything' is not 'anything'. I say 'learned' but, as we shall see, 'learned' is a word a little too strong for the 'forgetful' Erlend.

II. Husfrue (The Wife): Actually being married allows Kristin and Erlend fewer illusions. Erlend has an impressive estate, but it has, due to the chaos of his prior life, fallen into disrepair. Kristin, coming from a well-managed and orderly family life, is shocked, but that sort of life depends on exactly the kind of respectabilities and rules that she and Erlend have been flouting. But Kristin takes the management of his estate in hand and slowly brings it into a kind of order and prosperity, having a number of children with Erlend. Being married brings a sort of respectability to Erlend, and he ends up being quite good at filling out the role of sheriff and magistrate -- he is intelligent and levelheaded; being charming, he is good at negotiating with and cajoling people, and being born and raised in noble family he has the habits of authority. But things are not wholly irenic. Their past complicities are a seed that keeps popping up as a kind of resentment between the two. Kristin often has guilt for her past sins. Erlend, used to adventure and adrenaline, is commonly in a grip of a kind of restlessness; unhappiness at home will eventually lead to his having an affair, and in the 1330s, he becomes involved in a plot to replace the (fairly unpopular) King Magnus Eriksen of Norway with his brother, Duke Haakon. The plot will fail catastrophically, and in the most humiliating way, since it will be Erlend's affair that will lead to its being discovered. Erlend loses almost everything, because he has betrayed almost everything, and those who are involved with him, however innocent, including his wife and children, lose almost everything with him. 

III. Korset (The Cross): Erlend's noble estate is forfeited to the Crown, and they now have to get by, much poorer, as a gentry-farming family at Kristin's family farm of Jørundgaard, despite neither Erlend nor most of his children being well-suited to farming life. It does not help that having notoriously betrayed the king is not a reputation that will endear you with neighbors. And Erlend's having ruined his children's inheritance, leading to continual worries about their futures, leads to more fighting in the marriage, and eventually Erlend handles it the way he always ends up handling a difficult responsibility: he evades it. He leaves his wife and children and lives on his aunt's dilapidated farm. Kristin and Erlend, both stubborn and proud, pass up every opportunity to reconcile, despite the difficulties it puts their growing sons through, until Kristin, to fulfill a promise to Simon Darre, is forced to visit him. They conceive another son, and Kristin returns -- Kristin expecting Erlend to bend and return home, and Erlend expecting Kristin to bend and return to him; their mutual stubbornness leads to tragedy, as Kristin birthing their newest son while Erlend is away leads to rumors given Kristin's past that will threaten to harm their family greatly, and that will lead to Erlend's death. Erlend's death is a fitting one for him, I think: in a sense quite honorable and noble, and wholly for Kristin, and wholly unnecessary because it is in great measure the fault of Kristin and himself to begin with. Kristin's son takes over Jørundgaard, and Kristin eventually ends up as a boarder at a convent until she dies of the plague at a ripe old age, having devoted herself to nursing the sick.

Heavily influenced by the family-focused historical saga, this is a book rich with characters:

KristinLavransdatter FictionalCharacters.jpg
Public Domain, Link

One of the continual failings of both Kristin and Erlend -- of Erlend more than Kristin, although Kristin is not at any point an innocent in this -- is a refusal (more than a failure, a refusal) to look seriously at how their actions affect other people. It's a very human flaw, but combined with even an occasional selfishness and pride, it leads to grave harms visited on other people, willful disruptions of life for which other people have to pay. One of Kristin's redeeming qualities is her capacity eventually to recognize this. But repentance is a little harder than merely recognizing the wrong you do and the harm you done. And in the end, the only things that are not things to regret are the good deeds we do.

Favorite Passage:

Now, whenever she took the old path home past the site of the smith--and by now it was almost overgrown, with tufts of yellow bedstraw, bluebells, and sweet peas spilling over the borders of the lush meadow--it seemed almost as if she were looking at a picture of her own life: the weather-beaten, soot-covered old hearth that would never again be lit by a fire. The ground was strewn with bits of coal, but thin, short, gleaming tendrils of grass were springing up all over the abandoned site. And in the cracks of the old hearth blossomed fireweed, which sows its seeds everywhere, with its exquisite, ong red tassels. (p. 1017)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, Nunnally, tr,. Penguin (New York: 2005).

Friday, April 09, 2021

Dashed Off VII

This ends the notebook that was completed February 2020.

"No truth stands by itself -- as each is kept in order and harmonized by other truths." Newman

People often do not seem to understand how often they offend others, the offense merely being endured until a new situation overrides it, or else quietly being forgiven.

artifical vs natural models // artificial vs natural classifications

Debunking arguments often make the mistake of treating as non-truth-tracking things that are truth-taking in a limited way or under certain conditions (e.g., self-interest, social stability, empathy, etc.).
-- And of course this is in great measure the sleight of hand one often finds -- imperfections in the process are treated as reasons to rule the process out entirely. The defective is treated as the useless, the fragile as the broken, the sometimes irrelevant as the simply irrelevant.

Apostles are guided by inspiratio, i.e., by a positive gift and charism, and adsistentia, i.e. by negative restraint in the office; popes, as such, receive an office connected to the latter, and thus are guided only by adsistentia in it.

three standards: craftsmanship, product specification, product goals

Historical events, like physical events, are measured by containments and cycles.

Human beings cannot be satisfied, or even patient, very long with mere repetition; they must see it as something having meaning in a broader story, however good in itself.

People with no sense of the consecrated are horrified at nothing.

heart-warming as appealing to 'warm' virtues, or at least our capacity for them -- sympathy, joy, love
-- heart-warming and comfort
-- heart-warming and human connection

four forms of fraternity: natura, gente, cognatione, affectu (sibling, compatriot, kin, friend)

the works of philosophers as rough drafts or preliminary sketches of wisdom

Reduction to Box (exceptionlessness) repeatedly and spontaneously arises as in accounts of how explanation works, for many different modalities.

the sublimity of God in the cradle, the sublimity of God on the Cross

(love of Christ → love of those in whom Christ dwells [love of the brethren]) → love of those in whom Christ can dwell [love of humanity]

mutual esteem, reciprocal concessions, and reasonable dealings

Human beings are teachers by virtue of being human.

the piacular as more fundamental than the culpable

States and governments tend to use divisions in the citizenry as an occasion for developing state-dependence in the citizenry.

The original root idea of aion (as well as aevum) seems to have been something like 'lifespan', which then gets used in extended meanings (generation) and in figurative and semi-figurative meanings (the lifespan of the world, an age or eon or epoch).
The Romans took the god Aion to have Aeternitas as his female counterpart; both were the guarantors of perpetual Roman dominion.
The Kingdom having no end (Lk 1:33), it is everlasting, aionion (2 Pt 1:11).
2 Cor 4:18 aionios vs proskairos
Timaeus: aionios as that of which time is the moving image
aye, aevum, aion
"the completness which embraces the time of the life of each, outside of which there is nothing, according to nature, is called the aion of each. For the same reason, the completeness of the whole heaven, and the completeness embracing all time and infinitude is aion, having received this name from existing for ever, immortal and divine." Aristotle
"In aion, nothing is passed, nothing is about to be, but only subsists." Philo (De Mundo 7)

A patron saint qua patron is a symbolic altar for prayer.

equations as expanded zeroes

etiquette & the cultivation of the appearance of cooperation in order to facilitate substantive cooperation

-- generally taken to be related to hospitableness (Exceptions are mostly obviously ironic)
-- suggests smallness -- roomy but cozy is not impossible but is oxymoronic and in need of explanation
-- coziness often goes with warmness

spookiness and creepiness as species of uncanniness

"Our minds make stories, and stories make our minds." Terry Pratchett

An enthymeme is reasoning from the thymos.

Despite the name, a hypothesis test in statistics is not really a test of the hypothesis but a method for proceeding to an acceptable solution in decision problems in which the false positive rate is centrally important and potentially costly.

the portability of religious practice (the history of Judaism shows that this can play a significant role in how a religion develops and adapts)

Space and time are two ways of measuring causal possibility.

Even the appearance of mobbing is absolutely antithetical to the professional ethics of academic philosophy.

numeracy and literacy as more like physical fitness than specific skill, a state of preparedness arising from a habit of practicing
-- integrity is perhaps like this in moral life

corporations as human self-instrumentations

compression, communication, and new-inquiry-making as marks of understanding

All reasoning starts from something deemed worthy of unfolding.

Scientific claims are often less conclusions than patterns of inquiry.

Disjunction introduction (Addition) makes disjunction into an also-in-the-universe-of-discourse operator.

Torah as "the message declared by angels" (Hb 2:2; cp Acts 7:38-39, 53; Gal 3:19; and Josephus Ant. 15.5.3)

Every ethos is mediated.

morality in root, morality in mediation, morality in reception

In ancestor Christology and angel Christology, one attributes a causal role (mediation) to Christ, but with remotion and eminence: Christ is the Angel whose mediation is higher than the angels, the Ancestor whose mediation is higher than the ancestors, the superangelic Angel, the superancestral Ancestor.

arguments against the view that St. Joseph was sanctified in the womb or sinless
(1) the doctrine is not found in Scripture, either by prophecy, or by explicit statement, or by figure
(2) attributions to Joseph, like those to Mary, must arise out of his role in the work of salvation. Joseph's role is not to be blessed, full of grace, or overshadowed by the Spirit, his flesh does not need to be prepared to be that from which the Word Incarnate comes; he has no extensive prophetic role. His role is to be, like the patriarchs, a righteous man, to betroth and to serve as protector. Thus is it is reasonable to consider him Protector of the Universal Church; this arises out of his role. But sanctification in the womb does not, and sinlessness especially does not.

officia and professional ethics

In argument as in swordsmanship, hasty strokes go oft astray.

autonomy or autarchy of reason // integrity of body

doublings in Genesis as emphasis of theme
Doublings in Genesis are too common not to be deliberate.

One of the important features of George Herbert's poetic approach is that the title is not just the name of the poem but also part of the poem.

It would be more accurate to say that our natality gives the events of our life meaning than to say that our mortality does; and more accurate still to say that it is our eternity that does so.

Trying always to be right leads inevitably to dishonesty.

Confirmation depends on what exists.

'Allies' is what you are in the face of designated enemies.

three elements of full ownership
(1) usus (right to use as is)
(2) fructus (right to profit from)
(3) abusus (right to alienate either by consumption or transfer)

'Theories of truth' are in general just theories of marks of truth.

Differences in possible punishment can change the standards of guilt.

"The modern mind is not single-minded: it eliminates from its progressive outlook the Christian implication of creation and consummation, while it assimilates from the ancient worldview the idea of an endless and continuous movement, discarding its circular structure." Karl Lowith

Planck came up with the Planck length as a natural unit of length, not as a minimal length; the use of it as the latter arises out of later theories to relate quantum mechanics and general relativity. (Planck's comment was that it would be meaningful for all times and even for extraterrestrial nonhuman cultures.)

'Tikkun olam' is usually translated as 'repairing the world' or something similar, but it seems more likely to me, based on its actual Talmudic use, that it is should be understood as something more like 'correcting (the defects of) the age'. That is, when the situation at arises leads to people simply ignoring the law due to misaligned incentives, or else evading it, or introduces elements making it practically impossible, the rabbis may by normal halakhic processes come up with a workaround. This seems to fit most reasonably with (e.g.) Hillel's prosbol enactment. When tikkun olam is given as a reason, the rabbis are always providing some workaround to bring people back to the law in a situation that is making it unnecessarily difficult.

What human beings most admire are virtue and skill.

testimony to how others imagine things would be

Discussions of immorality in literature regularly fail to distinguish object and act in a plausible way.

'Grounding' and 'grounded' are just 'prior' and 'posterior'.

the 'memory' or 'storage' of a proof
-- in linear logic, items are removed from memory, unless they are fixed in it by exponentiation; in classical proofs, the memory is taken to include all necessary truths, always, any non-necessary assumptions once assumed, and all conclusions once proved. (Contradiction explosion requires this perfect infinite memory.)

Oral traditions are simultaneously conservative and adaptive.

Some aspects of the behavior of proper names in modern languages are artifacts of legal systems, not intrinsic to proper naming.

"a common nature is the pledge of our union with the Son of God" Calvin

Stupidity is sometimes, even often, the right explanation, but it is rarely the simplest explanation.

If the mind were a pattern, it could be constituted entirely by absences (like a sort of negative space).

Intellectual humility is distinct from openmindedness; the latter under certain conditions is a sign of the former, but not under other conditions.

haunted as aesthetic property
-- it is true that people recognize 'haunted house' in aesthetic terms; it's how people who don't believe in ghosts take it, and people who do believe in ghosts are not missing this sense

Nature as indefinite might

the spooky as that, the mere ability to think which, shows a mental capacity to think of death as a dividing boundary

shiver : spooky :: laughter : comic

the languid sublime

the exemplary irregular as a mark of genius
Exemplary irregularity also seems to be a mark of prophecy (but it arises from an external rather than an internal source).

parent-child & overlapping autonomy

Scripture is in favor of the doctrine that receiving the gospel from the Apostles and those whom they set as overseers is sufficient for salvation, and that this unwritten gospel can contain all that is necessary for salvation.

We have certain knowledge that unwritten traditions integral to the life of the Church, like the canon of Scripture, come from God.

Original justice as not 'as a wreath upon a maiden's hair' but as an integral health and robustness of youth.

the Church as "a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ"

Article XXI of the Thirty-Nine Articles is patently absurd. Councils can and may obviously be gathered together simply by gathering together, and this has been so since the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem, which serves as model and exemplar of all others. Nor have princes been give authority by Scripture to call Councils, much less in such a way as to be essential to the process, a particular absurdity when one considers the early history of the Church. Further, the role of princes, even of such as Constantine, has always primarily been infrastructural more than anything else. And we were just told the Article before that the Church has authority to decree rites and ceremonies and to determine in controversies of faith, which is what general councils do.

Williams's argument on the undesirability of immortality makes the false assumption that only categorical desires prevent life from being dull. But for people not suffering health problems or hormonal balances, lots of things other than desires contribute to making life interesting.

Contrary to Smuts, most of what we do is not done under the urgency of our mortality. (Philosophers and saints have in fact often needed to exhort people with memento-moris when it mattered.)

Logic circuits don't mimic brain actions but brain outputs.

experimentalesque observations
-- the natural historian and field scientist need to develop a sense or taste for the experimentalesque
-- just as picturesque require frameability and composition, the experimentalesque requires relative spearability and trackability/perceptibility of elements

Every concept has a final cause.

philosophical dialogues as conceptual art.

virtues → (by way of roles) offices → noblities, policies, and duties

Each clause of the Paternoster is a ground of trust: fatherhood, eminence, sanctity, sure promise, authority, benefaction, mercy, protection, deliverance.

the role of indefinite problems in factional politics

"He who would tell a tale must look toward three ideals: to tell it well, to tell it beautifully, and to tell the truth. The first is the Gift of God, the second is the Vision of Genius, but the third is the Reward of Honesty." Du Bois

time loop // space loop (rectilinear circle) // inference-step loop (circular argument)

Good politics is more like horticulture than engineering.

the mind's faith in, and hope on behalf of, and love for, the body

the presence of the artist in the art, of the crafter in the crafted
-- art as an instrument of presence; this suggests a distinction between conjoined (music, dance) and separable (painting, sculpture) instrument -- poetry is peculiar in straddling the line, not through complexity of parts (like drama) but in some way at the same time, or at least indifferently -- but perhaps we could say the same of music and dance if thinking of the distinctions in proper media of record

"To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force." G. Steiner
"... no epistemology, no philosophy of art can lay claim to inclusiveness if it has nothing to teach us about the nature and meanings of music."
"The text, the painting, the composition are wagers on lastingness."

Textual criticism is part of editing for better use of the text, and its only right mode of proceeding depends on that use.

An interpretation of a text should be consistent and unified (note that this is distinct from the text being consistent and unified), literarily pious (doing justice to author and audience), encompassing of the facts of the text, and actually derived from the text.

quasi-religion: pietistic sentimentalism (//kitsch), analogies of trouvism (buffet spiritualities), conceptual abstractions, analogies of avant-gardism

God - Christ - Sacraments - Heaven as the structure of the mission of the Church

the network of holy signs by which the Church fishes for men

the four senses and icons

the Church as seed, sign, and instrument of the Kingdom of God (Redemptoris missio)

A good reputation is one means by which we contribute to common good.

probabilities as measures of fit of means to ends

good architecture as a support and a refreshment for the soul

Truth values are a flattening of truth for the purpose of a model.

Deriving from the properly theandric acts of Christ, the sacraments are broadly theandric acts of Christ in His sacramental body.

'Oppression' does not signify a hierarchical relationship of any kind, although some hierarchical relationships are oppressive. Who cannot recognize non-hierarchical oppression cannot understand oppression, because the most basic kinds of oppression are not hierarchical.

In every political structure, dominant groups gain advantage by disempowering other groups, because this is what political structure is.

inherence, dependence, and reciprocity as three manifestations of final causation

holiness as love proceeding

Reasoning is the moving image of understanding.

Our knowledge is but a thimbleful, but not the less real for its minuteness.

Ex 24:1-1,9-11 sacred meal
Ex 24:3-8 blood of the covenant

"The solidarity of any civil society demands the presence of four common elements: one governor, one law, the same insignia, and a common end." Aquinas

As the Seven Days are to creation, so the Life of Christ is to our re-creation, as one is to nature, the other is to grace.

assumption : Box :: supposition : Diamond

salvation-history -- historia dispensationis temporalis divinae Providentiae (Augustine, De ver rel 7:13)

three aspects of Llull's homificans: understanding, memory, will

Humanitarian traditions are like faculties for human common good; this is related to why they must be guarded from perversion.

Christ's death qua satisfactory remedy the foundation of the penitential economy of the Church (martyrdom, indulgences, etc.)
Christ's death qua mystery of salvation the foundation of the sacramental economy of the Church

hospitality the mark/expression of royal munus

Each of the major sacraments is, qua visible sign, the Church itself expressing itself in specific form.

In the Creeds, each major point is tied to something historical: creation, the Virgin, Pontius Pilate, the prophets, the apostles.

Deck with Verdure Wood and Plain

April Days
by Amanda Theodocia Jones


Come through mist and dashing rain,
April days, April days;
Break the last light crystal chain,
Teach the snowbird livelier lays,
Deck with verdure wood and plain,
April days, April days.

Years are long--the years are three,
April days, April days,
Since my love went forth from me;
Craving neither gold nor praise,
But free scope for valor free,
April days, April days.

Sun-bright flags for marshaled men,
April days, April days,
Flung ye out o'er hill and glen;
All your winds sang battle-lays;
Southward soared your eagles then,
April days, April days.

Flaunt your sun-bright flags once more,
April days, April days;
For the ship is near the shore,
And he comes whom all must praise:
Northward doth my eagle soar,
April days, April days.

Gayly shine, oh, brightly shine,
April days, April days!
Wounded in the vanward line,
Victor of a hundred frays,
Welcome home this love of mine,
April days, April days!


Thursday, April 08, 2021

Yelling 'Fire' and Owning Tanks

President Biden:

"No amendment to the Constitution is absolute. You can't yell 'fire' in a crowded movie theater and call it freedom of speech. From the beginning, you couldn't own any weapon you wanted to own," he said, a line used during his 2020 campaign.

Neither of these claims is really correct. The claim that yelling fire in a crowded theater is not free speech comes from a court case in which someone was being prosecuted for handing out fliers criticizing the draft; it was later overturned, is widely recognized as a badly decided case, and is wrong. There are actions where it is recognized that freedom of speech does not necessarily excuse them despite the fact that they are done with speech -- things like defamation, obscenity, incitement to violence -- but precisely because of freedom of speech, the handling of them is very narrow and precise (and notably all such cases pre-exist the Constitution, so having narrowly defined laws against them does not restrict or infringe the freedom of speech people have always understood themselves to have). In any case, shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater is not one of these acts that use speech but are not wholly excused by freedom of speech.

And it is in fact the case that in the United States you can, in principle, own any weapon you want to own. It doesn't even make sense to say otherwise. In 'the beginning', the most important example of naval power -- warships being the most powerful weapons in the world at that time -- could be privately owned. The US Constitution literally has a clause assuming that Congress will issue letters of marque and reprisal, which are government authorizations for private ships to engage in acts of war. If you, as a private American citizen, want to own a tank or a fighter jet today, you are entirely within your rights to do so. (We don't have tanks and fighter jets everywhere because they are prohibitively expensive to maintain, and moving them around is immensely difficult. It's the same reason why, despite the fact that it is legal to own cannons, we have never had large numbers of cannon owners. Nothing prevents any of us from owning an aircraft carrier except that none of us could afford it. But a few tank enthusiasts, for instance, own their own fully functioning tanks and spend a large portion of their income every year maintaining them, just for the entirely legal fun of it.) Some things are very highly regulated, to be sure, but if you're willing to take the years to jump through the legal hoops, the only weapons you can't in principle own are cases where the impediment is incidental to owning the weapon itself -- like the patents being held by the military, or your attempting to store the weapon too closely to a population center, or not getting proper permitting and licensing for an alteration, or you are attempting to buy a weapon can't practically be made or sold for some reason. 

You can decry this, if you like, as unfortunate, but such is the American way. For all practical purposes, you can in fact say what you want to say and own the weapons you want to own if you are an American citizen, without the government prohibiting it, because the Constitution gives you that right.

In an absolute sense, no Constitution is absolute -- the fact that we can get rid of them or amend them is an obvious proof of that -- but, again, for practical purposes, Constitutional amendments are in fact absolute, in the sense that they are not supposed to be qualified or restricted except by Constitutional amendment. That's the whole point of a written constitution. Both federal and state governments are always trying to give themselves wiggle room in the interpretations, and perhaps sometimes this succeeds, but  the whole point of a written constitution as a safeguard is that neither legislature nor executive are supposed to be able to impose exceptions or qualifications on their own authority. Now, if President Biden wants to argue that there should be a new Constitutional amendment, he is entirely within his rights as an American citizen. But, unless we've just decided that Presidents should be able to do whatever they want, it takes a Constitutional amendment to restrict a Constitutional freedom.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Bound by the Spell of Some Enchanting Page

Fire-side Fancy
by John William Burgon

Oft as, at night, I sit and muse alone,
Bound by the spell of some enchanting page
Bard of old Greece, or half inspir'd sage
My kindl’d fancy takes a wayward tone:
And straight, I hear what seems the midnight moan
Of some poor restless ghost;--or, it may be,
The distant roaring of the sleepless sea;
Or unchain’d winds that howl from zone to zone.
Hark! is it not a voice? There seem’d to come
A soft sad wail;--but now, such carol wild
As a young Mother chaunteth to her child
Steals o'er the sense.--Go to--it is the hum
Of a huge city!.....while I thus inquire,
I turn, and find--the kettle near the fire!

Worcester College, 13th Dec., 1844.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Beauty and Simplicity

 Matthew Baddorf has an interesting article arguing that there is an inconsistency between the doctrines that God is beautiful and that God is simple. The essential argument is:

(1) God is beautiful.

(2) If God is beautiful, God's beauty arises from some structure.

(3) If God's beauty arises from some structure, God has proper parts.

(4) Therefore God has parts (and is thus not simple).

Both (2) and (3) are certainly false, but it's worth considering Baddorf's argument for them.

With respect to (2), it's obviously being assumed that beauty is something that depends on something -- i.e., that beauty has to 'arise', which is doubtful for a case like divine beauty. But setting that aside, Baddorf gives as his reason for (2) a position that he calls Structuralism (which I'll call S1), which he defines as:

If an object is beautiful, it has a kind of unity, proportion, harmony, or some similar relation of various elements of a whole.

It's important to distinguish S1 from another claim, which I'll call S2:

If an object has a relevant kind of unity, proportion, harmony, or some similar relation of various elements of a whole, it is beautiful.

S2 is an extremely common historical thesis. It is much less clear than Baddorf suggests that S1 is quite so common, and indeed, there are highly popular historical accounts of beauty in which S2 is true but S1 is false. Indeed, the single most influential account of beauty in the history of philosophy, the Neoplatonist account, is such a case, as Baddorf himself has to recognize. In any case, Baddorf's argument for S1 does not adequately distinguish it from S2; the arguments for S1 could easily be seen as arguments for S2, instead, such as the arguments that many things in our experience that we find beautiful have 'harmony relations' of this kind, and some of the historical predecessors for S1 are arguably not actually committed to anything stronger than S2 (e.g., Aristotle, who does not actually have more than a few comments on the subject). In any case, Baddorf does consider Neoplatonist rejections of S1, and in particular, some of their counterexamples: pure color patches and thoughts.

Baddorf recognizes that pure color patches may be pleasing, but wants to say that calling them beautiful confuses beauty with pleasingness. This is not consistent with the way we ordinarily talk about beauty, since people regularly will not only talk about things like a beautiful shade of blue but even talk about the beauty of a single dimension of a color's appearance, like saying that a color has a beautiful deepness or lightness or vividness; nor do they seem to be talking about merely finding the experience pleasing. But Baddorf, I think, would suggest that in such cases they are merely assigning the beauty of a larger whole to the color. (He wants to say that any counterexample with color patches would have to be of experiences involving nothing but that color, to rule out that possibility. It's not at all clear why anyone would think this, but let's assume it for the moment.) Consider a pure field of blue. Can it be beautiful? Baddorf wants to say no. I, and the Neoplatonists, and, indeed, most people who have ever talked about the beauty of colors, want to say that yes, it can be so. What is more, I think it's clear that it could be the case even given S1; a pure field of blue has complete unity, proportion, order, harmony with itself -- and Baddorf has not ruled out that some of the relevant harmony relations are things an object could have with itself. He will go on to say this, and to say that we do not experience color patches as having harmony relation, but this actually makes no sense: we do, in fact, experience pure color patches as one and harmonious. That's what makes them pure.

Baddorf's fallback position is that even if we assumed that there was some way that the pure field of color was beautiful, it would have to be a minimal beauty. Again, I, the Neoplatonists, and most people who have ever talked about the beauty of colors, deny: pure, intense, vivid color is the height of beauty in colors. Yes, there are greater beauties involving colors -- a beautiful painting has, perhaps, a greater beauty than a beautiful color. But this is just because colors themselves are not the most beautiful things. It does not show that pure color cannot have the highest beauty as regards color itself. And the Neoplatonist can turn Baddorf's error-diagnosis against him: Baddorf is making the error of assuming that the highest beauty with respect to color (i.e., the highest beauty of a whole involving color) is the highest beauty of color itself. But this is not true, the Neoplatonist will (rightly) say. If we just look at color itself, its highest beauty lies in its purity; but there are things that exhibit higher beauty, and Baddorf is attributing the beauty of wholes that include beautiful colors to the beautiful colors themselves. Indeed, this necessarily follows: if a color on its own can't be beautiful, 'beautiful' has to be an extrinsic denomination when applied to colors.

Another Neoplatonist counterexample is thoughts. Baddorf wants to say that these are in fact structured. Even if that were so, what he actually needs to argue is that it is specifically about their structure we are talking when we call them 'beautiful', which is not an argument we get. But it's hard to argue that what Neoplatonists have in mind when talking about thoughts -- things like unified insights -- are always structured in the way Baddorf needs. What he needs for (2) to go with (3) is structure that has definite proper parts (otherwise, the argument fails through equivocation). But while our descriptions of these things have proper parts (namely, parts of the descriptions), what exactly are the proper parts of an understanding of the Pythagorean theorem as a whole? What are the proper parts of the insight that the hypotenuse of no right triangle can ever be strictly measured by the sides? What are the proper parts of the apprehension that there are no square circles? The Neoplatonist will deny there are any. And rightly so. Our descriptions of these things have proper parts (i.e., phrases and words), but these are not part of the things being described; and trying to break down an insight about a whole into its mutually exclusive parts seems to involve a category mistake.

This is related to a problem with the role that Structuralism plays in the argument. S1 says that something's being beautiful has a harmony relation of elements in a whole. It does not require that these parts be proper parts, and one of the harmony relations mentioned is unity. Now every whole is (by definition) an improper part of itself; and every modality of a thing is (by definition) not a proper part; and every whole is (by definition) one and proportional with itself. So if one assumed a whole with no proper parts, it could still have improper parts or modalities that are related by the relation of unity. Indeed, it would have to be so. S1 does not give us a tight enough account of structure to guarantee that 'structure' in (2) will actually be univocal with the kind of structure discussed in (3).

So how do we get (3)? The primary argument for (3) is the following dilemma, which assumes the truth of (2). Either the structure of divine beauty involves non-divine proper parts, or not. If it does, this is inconsistent both with simplicity and divine aseity. If it does not, how could there be such structure without proper parts?

There is no dilemma here, though; proper parts are not the only things that we take to contribute to structure. Wholes without proper parts can have improper parts (indeed, by definition all wholes are improper parts of themselves); modalities of a whole can be related to each other by relations like unity and are not proper parts; wholes can have rational relations to themselves (like self-consistency) that have structure; and if we reject Intrinsicness, we have the possibility of a whole necessarily having rational relations to other things that are beautiful. Mereology, modal logic, and indeed lots of other areas study these kinds of things as structures of some kind. If you accept S1, you seem to be be committed to something like these being enough if you accept a lot of attributions of beauty in mathematics and logic. And, of course, if we reject (2), as a Neoplatonist would, then the dilemma has no force to begin with.

And indeed, Baddorf's entire argument is suspicious from the get-go. If attributions of beauty are based on unity, harmony, and the like, noncomposite things (i.e., simple things) are more unified than composite things and guaranteed to be necessarily harmonious in ways that composite things cannot be guaranteed to be. This is the whole point of the Neoplatonists: things are beautiful in proportion as they are unified and harmonious, and noncomposite things are necessarily more unified and harmonious than composite ones. What Baddorf wants to hold is that both variety and unity are equally necessary to beauty-attributions. But the Neoplatonist counterexamples are precisely put forward to argue that in fact this is not true: beautiful faces, beautiful colors, beautiful actions, beautiful mathematical theorems, beautiful logical arguments, beautiful ideas, all are very different, but what brings them together as beautiful things is that they have unity; and in any given order it seems that the greater the unity, the greater the beauty of the thing in that order; and as we move from sensible things to intelligibles, it seems that beauty and unity continue to go together even as it becomes less and less reasonable to talk about proper parts. What can exhibit unity, harmony, and the like more perfectly than what is without division or composition? And on the other side, in practice we often attribute uglinesses to lack of unity; we often say that something is ugly because it is too busy or not sufficiently unified or incoherent. There's also a reason Neoplatonism has always been such a major player when it comes to accounts of beauty; whatever you might think of other aspects of Neoplatonism, it describes beauty in ways that people very often find resonant with their actual experience of it. We should be wary of arguments appealing to plausibility against a position for which we can easily point to the fact that  many people through history and across different cultures have actually found it plausible.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Three Poem Drafts

Spirit Gates

The holy gates of intermeshing light
are bright
as I stand on the edge of the spirit-world
in dark and darker night;
the sacred moonlight-stag has furled
a banner of defiance to the stars,
a tall, triumphant flag
now takes its flight
where shadows are,
at the edge of light and dark
where the lines are sharp and stark
and haunt the sight
with the consecrated emblem of an endless fight.

The Shop at Nazareth

Quiet work of carven wood
by maker's hand is made the good;
careful labor, crafting trade,
by carpenter the world is made.
Adze and chisel, plane and saw,
a little chalk with which to draw,
plumb and level, measured rod:
these things adorned the hand of God.
A little dust on hardened hand
from whittled wood-piece smoothed with sand,
a forehead crowned with heavy thought
to plan the project as He ought,
as piece will interlock with piece
until creation ends in peace.

 Crossing Over

The silent stars are weeping
behind a clouded sky;
the rain is softly falling
where the wind begins to sigh.
The memories stream like tears
down faces pricked with pain.
This world grows griefs and fears
beside the final fane.

Beside the final fane
this world grows griefs and fears;
down faces pricked with pain
the memories stream like tears.
Where the wind begins to sigh,
the rain is softly falling;
behind a clouded sky
the silent stars are weeping.

Music on My Mind

The Swan Silvertones, "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep". This song (and version) is probably most famous for being the inspiration for Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water", but it stands well enough on its own.

Sunday, April 04, 2021


A great many people assume that Easter was originally a pagan holiday, and that many of the customs associated with it were originally pagan customs. This is not wholly implausible, as Christians would occasionally convert pagan holidays and customs. But in this case, there is not only a complete lack of evidence for it, there is plenty of evidence against it.

In most languages, the Feast of the Resurrection is known by some variation of Anastasia, the Greek word for Resurrection, or Pascha, the Greek form of the Aramaic word for Passover, and this is of course the actual origin of Easter as a holiday: it was a celebration of the resurrection of Christ based on the Jewish Passover, taking into account that Christians stopped using the Jewish calendar. The holiday is not based on any prior Greek or Roman holiday.

Languages heavily influenced by Old English, including, of course, English itself, use the word 'Easter'. This is a peculiarity that would be impossible to explain at all except that one relatively early authority gives us an explanation that seems plausible. St. Beda, also known as the Venerable Bede, tells us that the name comes from one Anglo-Saxon name for a month, roughly about April, Eosturmonath, which was named after a goddess, Eostre, who had some holidays during that period. Given that Bede is quite careful, we can be reasonable sure that this was in fact said by some people in his day; he's also not likely to be wrong about there having been such an Old English word for the month, particularly given that it fits linguistic evidence elsewhere. But we don't actually even know for sure that there was really a goddess named Eostre or whether people in Bede's time (the late seventh century, by which time the English were fully Christianized) just knew the name of the Easter season came from an old word for the month and inferred that the month was named after a goddess. Bede is our only authority, as Eostre is mentioned nowhere else at all; there is not a trace of her worship, if it existed, except in the name. The name 'Eostre' has possible cognates in some Germannic personal and place names that may possibly refer to a goddess of the dawn, and there are a number of inscriptions on the continent a couple of centuries before Bede to goddesses known as Matronae Austriahenae, who may possibly be related. Except for Bede's testimony, all of the reason for thinking there was even such a goddess is based on linguistic analogies and etymological inferences, which may or may not be any good.

As we learn nothing about the goddess from Bede except her name, the name of the spring month, and that she had some feasts in her honor at that time, and analogy tells us nothing but that she might possibly have had some association with the dawn at some time, we know nothing about the rites used to worship her, which, if like other minor gods and goddesses, in any case probably varied a lot from place to place. That the association of Easter with rabbits and hares has to do with the goddess is completely a guess based on the assumption, which may or may not be true, that a spring-worshipped goddess must be a fertility goddess; it's certainly true that rabbits and hares sometimes figured in various rites in the ancient world. But in reality, the first actual evidence of anything like a cultural bunny-association with Easter seems to be in post-medieval Germany. The Easter Bunny itself, of course, is a primarily American invention (although possibly Britain actually originated the first versions), based loosely on customs of German immigrants. We have likewise no reason to think that eggs were associated with Eostre; the probable reason for their association with the holiday was that medieval peasants would usually fast from eggs as well as milk and meat for Lent, so of course being able to eat eggs again would be an easy, and relatively cheap, way to mark the day. Conceivably a similar explanation applies to rabbits.

Major holidays are powerful attractors. We see this most forcefully with Christmas, which has managed to absorb independent customs originally associated with all the lesser holidays around it: St. Nicholas's day, St. Lucy's Day, St. Stephen's Day, Epiphany, including Winter Solstice customs, some of which likely go back to pagan times. But, of course, it's always operative; Halloween slowly absorbs every October custom, Thanksgiving in the United States slowly absorbs every November custom, etc. It would not be at all surprising if Easter, the single most important holiday in the Christian calendar, managed to absorb customs previously associated with other spring holidays in its long centuries of dominance, and there are occasional plausible examples of this. But Easter is Easter, and not some other thing.

Surrexit Christus!

On Friday the King endured pain and was crucified, and today victory has been achieved by his resurrection!

On Friday a lance pierced his side, and today in his compassion the waters of Baptism flow!

On Friday he was crowned with thorns, and today he has adorned his Church with a crown of splendor!

Today is the day of rejoicing in the resurrection.

[Prayer of Forgiveness (Hoosoyo) for the Sunday of the Glorious Resurrection, The Book of Offering According to the Rite of the Antiochene Syriac Maronite Church, (2012) pp. 319-320.]