Saturday, May 01, 2021

A World Made Merciless

The Modern Manichee
by G. K. Chesterton

He sayeth there is no sin, and all his sin
Swells round him into a world made merciless;
The midnight of his universe of shame
Is the vast shadow of his shamelessness.
He blames all that begat him, gods or brutes,
And sires not sons he chides as with a rod.
The sins of the children visited on the fathers
Through all generations, back to a jealous God.

The fields that heal the humble, the happy forests
That sing to men confessed and men consoled,
To him are jungles only, greedy and groping,
Heartlessly new, unvenerably old.
Beyond the pride of his own cold compassion
Is only cruelty and imputed pain:
Matched with that mood, a boy's sport in the forest
Makes comrades of the slayer and the slain.

The innocent lust of the unfallen creatures
Moves him to hidden horror but no mirth;
Misplaced morality rots in the roots unconscious,
His stifled conscience stinks through the green earth.
The green things thrust like horrible huge snails,
Horns green and gross, each lifting a leering eye
He scarce can call a flower; it lolls obscene,
Its organs gaping to the sneering sky.

Dark with that dusk the old red god of gardens
Still pagan but not merry any more,
Stirs up the dull adulteries of the dust,
Blind, frustrate, hopeless, hollow at the core;
The plants are brutes tied with green rope and roaring
Their terrible dark loves from tree to tree:
He shrinks as from a shaft, if by him singing,
A gilded pimp and pandar, goes the bee.

He sayeth, 'I have no sin; I cast the stone',
And throws his little pebble at the shrine,
Casts sin and stone away against the house
Whose health has turned earth's waters into wine.
The venom of that repudiated guilt
Poisons the sea and every natural flood
As once a wavering tyrant washed his hands,
And touching, turned the water black with blood.

Poem a Day 1

A Poem Is Not for Sale

A poem is not for sale,
so it must be stolen.
Surveil the inroads and outroads
and bide until the silent night.
Mark your visage in soft black,
put sneakers on your feet.
With diamond slice the glass,
through the hole stretch your hand,
and undo the securing latch.
Turn the combination on the safe,
and all throughout, remember: Shhh.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Evening Note for Friday, April 30

Thought for the Evening: Officia

An important aspect of traditional Western virtue ethics that gets very little discussion in post-medieval discussions of virtue ethics is the entire field of officia. Officium is usually transliterated as 'office' or translated as 'duty'; either works, although we have to be careful of any distorting baggage that might get attached to either. Some (although not all) uses of the word 'norm' overlap with the idea of offices, as well.

If you take the excellent or virtuous life of a human being to be the heart of ethics, then there's a question of how obligations fit into such an approach. There are different ways; for instance, one way is what is covered by natural law theory, another by positive jurisprudence, and so forth. But if you only focus on these, you get a very limited understanding of obligations. Natural law theory primarily offers a general framework for obligation; positive jurisprudence, of course, is focused on human law-making. But there are many other kinds of obligation. Officia are probably the most important kind. To put the matter roughly, officia are obligations that arise in the context of trying to fill legitimate roles virtuously.

The essential idea was heavily influenced by the Stoics, but the primary conduit that leads to discussion of office historically is Cicero's De officiis. Cicero, who was partly building on and partly criticizing an older work (no longer extant) by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius, argues that offices need to be understood in light of moral goodness, and thus organizes his discussion in terms of the cardinal virtues -- prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. These are human excellences we all need to achieve. But the sort of thing that is needed in order to achieve the virtues will shift depending on the roles you occupy in life. Someone may need to be prudent as a student, as a mother, as a professional, as a citizen. The virtue is fundamentally the same, but the virtue is responsive to role, taking into account its conditions and circumstances, and because of this our duties or responsibilities or offices in that role may differ in a number of important ways from those we would have in another. As Cicero puts it, "For no phase of life, whether public or private, whether in business or in the home, whether one is working on what concerns oneself alone or dealing with another, can be without its duty (officium); on the discharge of such duties (officia) depends all that is morally right, on their neglect all that is morally wrong in life."

Cicero distinguishes two kinds of offices, honesta and utilia, although they are not equally important and he also recognizes that their relationship means that often both are relevant to our particular actions. Honesta, which we could translate as 'nobilities', are more strictly linked with virtues. They are concerned with acting nobly or decorously in the role. Utilia, which we could translate as 'expediences', are more loosely linked to virtues, and are about acting advantageously for oneself and others in a role. To put it roughly, while nobilities are directly required by virtue in a role, and so are properly moral in the strict sense, expediences are what are required for effectively acting in a role in a manner consistent with virtue, so are things that make the moral life one that prospers, and thus are moral responsibilities in a looser sense. In English we sometimes cover the latter in terms of 'enlightened self-interest', although expediences also include what is in the interests of other people. If you are a legislator, refusing to take bribes is a nobility; getting important legislation passed for your constituents by negotiating reasonably with other legislators is an expedience. But, as noted before, while we can consider nobilities and expediences distinctly, in actual life they can be interwoven in complicated ways. And, of course, there's a sense in which in the long run, the big picture, all things considered, nobilities tend toward being expedient and expediences tend toward being noble.

St. Ambrose of Milan also gives us an extensive discussion of offices, with a particular concern for the offices of the priesthood, in his own De officiis. In a broad sense, Ambrose's account is modeled on Cicero's. But there are important differences, arising from the fact that Cicero is writing his book on offices for the benefit of his physical son, whereas Ambrose as bishop is writing his book on offices for the benefit of his spiritual sons, and there are a number of distinctive features of the role of being a Christian priest that inevitably affect how the offices are understood. The biggest difference that Ambrose notes is that for a priest, expediences in the usual sense are largely irrelevant, since the important measure is not success in this world but preparation for the next. Because of this, Ambrose generally prefers to distinguish offices using another distinction mentioned by Cicero, namely, media and perfecta, which, as he understands it, is heavily influenced by the theological distinction between counsels and commands. However, he still organizes his treatise like Cicero's by dividing it into three, with the first book on nobilities, the second on expediences, and the third on their union; it's just that he primarily seems to think of these things as different aspects of the same offices rather than different kinds of office. Perhaps because of Ambrose's arguments, later discussions will tend to keep their primary focus on the virtues, although consideration of offices will often come up (e.g., Aquinas takes a brief moment to discuss them in ST 2-2.183). But they do get a little crowded out in terms of the actual discussion, so it is perhaps not surprising that discussion of them vanishes almost entirely in the early modern period.

Almost, but not quite. They do still come up here and there in discussions of casuistry or cases of consciences. And wherever Cicero is read, you can see some influence from the idea, especially when people discuss duties. The topic of offices comes up in the interaction between David Hume and Francis Hutcheson. Hume, who is the early modern philosopher (other than the Baroque scholastics) with the most sophisticated grasp of virtue as second nature, develops a virtue ethics that is heavily influenced by Cicero. Hutcheson, who is heavily influenced by Cicero as well, at one point will criticize Hume's account for conflating virtues and offices. (It is definitely true that Hume to some extent does so; Hume organizes his virtues in ways that are clearly influenced by Cicero's organization of offices, with immediately agreeable virtues corresponding to nobilities and useful virtues corresponding to expediences, and many of Hume's virtues are things that Cicero would have considered kinds of offices.) We can also see the influence of the ideas on Mill's discussion of the relationship between Right and Expedience in Utilitarianism, and on discussions of imperfect duties and perfect duties that will eventually influence Kant's uses of the same distinction, although in both of these cases we have left any kind of virtue ethics behind.

Unlike virtues, which are necessarily consistent with each other (they are unified by reason and prudence in particular), offices can seem to conflict, both within a role and between different roles one person might have. (I say 'seem' because historically a lot of people have been uncomfortable with the notion of having conflicting moral responsibilities given that virtues on which moral responsibilities depend don't conflict. Cicero, for instance, is opposed to the notion of a real conflict among offices. Ambrose, I think, can be read as taking this only to be strictly true of Christian offices, which are further unified by charity.) Obviously, nobilities should generally be preferred to expediences; offices that affect others should usually be preferred to offices that affect oneself alone; offices for more fundamental roles should generally be preferred to offices for less fundamental roles; and so forth. But while the guidelines are easy enough to recognize, there are no hard and fast rules for weighing offices; the weighing of offices is something done by the virtue of prudence. Virtues operate in roles, but virtues are not confined to roles, and therefore provide the platform by which you are able to determine what is actually appropriate to your own case. This is why the criticism of Hume as conflating office and virtue has some bite. Virtues are more fundamental than offices, and they are what make it possible for us to fulfill our offices in a confusing world.

Various Links of Interest

* Becca Rothfeld, Sanctimony Literature 

* Michael Cuenco, America's New Post-Literate Epistemology

* Lee Alan Dugatkin, The Botanist Who Defied Stalin

* Miguel J. Romero, Aquinas on the Happiness of "Those Who Lack the Use of Reason"

* Brendan Case, The Brain Resides in the Soul (Not the Other Way Around), discusses Berkeley's idealism

* Suki Finn & Sasha Isaac, Evaluating Ectogenesis via the Metaphysics of Pregnancy (PDF)

* Aemlia Soth discusses the contribution of the Claude glass to the development of the concept of the picturesque

* Brendan Hodge, Paying and Praying: Is there a link between parish devotions and weekly collections?

* Joseph Bendana & Eric Mandelbaum, The Fragmentation of Belief (PDF)

* Tamar Newar, Augustine's Master Argument for the Incorporeality of the Mind (PDF)

* Dan Kemp, Created Goodness and the Goodness of God: Divine Ideas and the Possibility of Creaturely Value (PDF)

* Joshua Harris, Collective Action and Social Ontology in Thomas Aquinas

* Colin Marshall, Hume versus the vulgar on resistance, nisus, and the impression of power (PDF)

* Stefanie Rocknack, Constancy and Coherence in 1.4.2 of Hume's Treatise: The Root of "Indirect" Causation and Hume's Position on Objects (PDF)

Currently Reading

Hafnkel's Saga and Other Stories
Richard Courant & Herbert Robbins, What is Mathematics?
Guha, Dasti, & Phillips, trs., God and the World's Arrangement: Readings from Vedanta and Nyaya Philosophy of Religion

Dashed Off IX

Human traditions are imperfectly wise, but this is very far from saying that they are wholly foolish, or, at times, even foolish at all.

Uncertainty can simplify problems in the sense that things can cease to be options at all when uncertainty is too high.

censure due to import
censure due to expression
censure due to consequences

logic as part of the examined life vs. as a formal system

Krier: civitas = res publica (monuments without streets & squares) + res economica (streets & squares without monuments)
-- the idea is that there should not be single-use zoning but interactive blending at city-level (two systems that overlay each other

"If we were asked for what end, above all others, endowed universities exist, or ought to exist, we should answer -- To keep alive philosophy." Mill

General skepticism of miracles is usually based not on rigorous argument but on a particular myth of progress.

directives, tentatives, and correctives in design

Only transubstantiation gives to God a worship adequate to God.

Aristotle's magnanimity is a virtue that strives to make every situation better because of itself -- e.g., the magnanimous man, receiving a benefit, gives to the benefactor more than he has received; he is selective about projects so that he can do the ones most deserving of honor; he stands on his own two feet rather than being a burden; he is ready to confer benefits and give help; he holds himself to higher standards.

Analytic philosophy all too often turns into very smart people arguing with their own lack of imagination.

four survival needs that are done well in human beings only by converging on the cardinal virtues
(1) paying attention and acting accordingly
(2) interacting with others stably
(3) risk-taking
(4) handling distractions

etiquette and 'justifiability to others on grounds they could not reasonably regret'

Evangelical truth is not merely possessed by the Church; it pervades it, the Church is steeped in it.

The heart's disposition to observe our moral duties as divine commands tends naturally to dogma and observance.

Every enduring community requires handing down, i.e., a tradition.

To conceive the ethical commonwealth as a people, one must conceive morality as handed down. It must in fact be doubly handed-down, both synchronically and diachronically.

There is a human propensity to religion of divine service and thus to faith in statutory divine laws.

The preservation of faith is only adequately provided for through Scripture and Tradition together.

The faith of a religion of service may be servile or it may be filial. Children seek to please their parents with actions and tokens having value only in being proffered for their parents' sake.

It is essential to Christianity that Christ is not just the founder of the Church but, as God, of the very impulse to religion that is found in every human heart.

Every statutory system is a sign and symbol of something beyond itself.

Everywhere in experience we recognize the supersensible object of the world itself.

To say that we cannot be well-pleasing to God unless our service is moral, is true enough; to say this moral aspect of our service is separate from or does not involve our symbolic and ritual acts is a delusion. That something must be done morally does not imply that the bare morality is all that is required, even in light of morality itself, which requires symbolic and social expression.

Ecclesiastical service must be a transfigured and greater temple service.

one : one :: holy : good :: catholic : true :: apostolic : beautiful (or perhaps being itself or res?)

Augustine and inner dialogue as a philosophical method
-- soliloquy vs confession

Moral evil does not arise from the necessary limitations of humanity as a finite nature.

'it seems to S that p'
There is a gap here between the seeming and the 'that p'; the latter is not in the seeming but an articulation of it into the judgment that p.

Sol LeWitt on conceptual art: "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art."

Pejoratives may be made up on the spot; slurs are only formed over time.

possible relations between grace and nature
(1) grace and nature work separately
(2) grace disrupts nature
(3) grace supplements nature
(4) nature supplements grace
(5) grace transfigures nature

The problem with characterizing science as 'what scientists do' is that science is only what scientists do when they are doing science.

pejoration, compliment, and information as the three modes of linguistic communication

three kinds of synthetic proposition: resemblance, contiguity, causation

sublime : numinous :: beautiful : graceful? :: picturesque : cinematic?

the experience of holiness as suggestive of divine simplicity

One matter that Hume does not consider in his account of miracles is the role of flattering oneself that one is more knowing than other people.

conceptual art as philosophical sketchwork

Kant does not sufficiently consider that if reason legislates universally, we (qua sensible creatures) can be said to get the moral law from the reason of other people as well as from our own reason. (This is, however, suggested by the Kingdom of Ends formulation.)

Evidence is recognized as evidence within a story of intellectual progress.

Theoretical confirmation is an effect of how evidence converges.

physiological end, populational end, ecosystemic end, cosmic end

There is no liberty without teleology; every kind of liberty is defined by its teleology.

the vignettesque -- that which expresses that peculiar kind of beauty agreeable to a literary vignette -- that which pleases from some quality capable of being expressed in a vignette
-- literary sketches : vignettesque :: pictorial sketches : picturesque
-- basic sketch (like in a journal entry), adorned sketch (polished up)
-- memoirs : vignettesque :: travelogues : picturesque
-- vignettesque : time :: picturesque : place
-- the spot: that which, without being a story, suggests a story; a germinal vignette
-- memorability : vignettesque :: composition : picturesque
-- a few connected details : vignettesque :: line : picturesque
-- 'intimate strikingness'
-- striking : vignettesque :: rough : picturesque

'Mechanistic' accounts of human action are virtually always idealisms of motives and impulses.

pets as fictive minors/wards

"A world of corporate persons is a world of free association: it is the antithesis of collectivism, which imposes a world of conscription, where all association is centrally controlled, and all institutions are things. Collectivism involves a sustained war, not on the individual as such, but on the *person*, whether individual or corporate." Scruton

'Cognitive bias' is not the same as 'cognitive error'; most common biases have situations in which they would be biased toward right answers.

It takes an effort not to read behaviors as evaluations.

propositions implying the intelligibility of questions
(1) by term, e.g., 'John is kind' implies the intelligibility of "Who is kind?", "What is John?", "Is John kind?"
(2) by presupposition, e.g., "John is kind" implies the intelligibility of "Does John exist?", "Are these kind people?"
(3) by analogy, e.g., "John is kind" implies the intelligibility of "Is Mary kind?" given an appropriate similarity under comparison

An idea is a seed of a whirlwind of ideas.

So much of philosophy consists of trying to achieve tasks for which there are no adequate instruments.

Christ underwent baptism of blood as well as water (cp. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 39).

writeable-as (in mathematics, e.g., algebraic representations of numbers) as a binary modal operator?

Every obligation must be specified by something that is distinct from itself but sufficient reason for it.

"Just as the perfections of all natural things preexist in God as their exemplar, so was Christ the exemplar of all ecclesiastical offices." Aquinas
"A priest represents Christ in this, that He fulfilled a certain ministr per se, but a bishop in this, that He instituted other ministers and founded the Church."
"...the episcopate is an order in relation to the Mystical Body."
"Orders are sacraments from their relationship to the greatest of the sacraments...."
"The episcopate is more a dignity than it is an order."
" relation to the Real Body of Christ there is no order above the presbyterate; but in relation to the Mystical Body of Christ the episcopal order is above the sacerdotal order."
"Since the episcopate does not add anything to the presbyterate in relation to the Real Body of Christ, but only in relation to the Mystical Body, the Pope by reason of being the greatest of bishops does not have the plenitude of power in relation to the Real Body of Christ but only in relation to the Mystical Body of Christ."

Holtum: episcopacy pertains truly to orders, not per se like priesthood, but propter aliud (because of the priesthood and with it); it is a complement of the order of priesthood.

Christ works in the Church through two ordered instrumentalities: the sacramental (structured by reference to the Eucharist) and the social (structured by reference to the Mystical Body). These are themselves ordered: sacramental grace in the Mystical Body comes from the Eucharist, which organizes the Church as a Mystical Body.

--the bishop has a more sublime elevation than priesthood (Peter Damian)
-- "the power which has already been given is amplified" (Bonaventure)
--the bishop's power respect to the Mystical Body has a power hierarchically related to conferring sacraments and sacramentals (power of orders in a broad sense) and a power of ruling (power of jurisdiction)

Durandus: episcopacy both sacrament and order, but forms one sacrament with priesthood, as imperfect and perfect; just like consecration of both bread and wine make one sacrament.
Capreolus: analogy to bread and wine too loose -- they have one end, priesthood & episcopacy have distinct ends; and by virtue of what is episcopacy actually more complete -- the episcopacy adds a power ordered to a less perfect act than the act of priesthood.

Aureolus: bishop receives neither new power nor augmentation of power but removal of an impediment to power
Capreolus: this is contrary to the words used to consecrate, which refer to conferring power and not to impediment removal

Gonet: Episcopal consecration completes and extends the priestly character by causing a new, real, natural, modal entity, which is indelible like the character // power to absolve -- a modality of the character, indelible, directed to the Mystical Body

-- the episcopacy contains the priesthood both eminenter and essentialiter-formaliter; the priesthood contains the diaconate eminenter

Weak roles, confused duties.

It is difficult to have a coherent consequentialist account of repentance as a moral good.

prohairetic // operative

origines gentium of Genesis 10 as teaching the unity of humanity (Saadia, Maimonides)

the articulation of extensive and intimate familiarities

PSR (requirements) --> PSR (obligations) --> PSR (rights)

laws of nature as forms of unity

Thursday, April 29, 2021

And This Was the Strain of His Song

The Woman and the Angel
by Robert W. Service

An angel was tired of heaven, as he lounged in the golden street;
His halo was tilted sideways, and his harp lay mute at his feet;
So the Master stooped in His pity, and gave him a pass to go,
For the space of a moon, to the earth-world, to mix with the men below.

He doffed his celestial garments, scarce waiting to lay them straight;
He bade good by to Peter, who stood by the golden gate;
The sexless singers of heaven chanted a fond farewell,
And the imps looked up as they pattered on the red-hot flags of hell.

Never was seen such an angel -- eyes of heavenly blue,
Features that shamed Apollo, hair of a golden hue;
The women simply adored him; his lips were like Cupid's bow;
But he never ventured to use them -- and so they voted him slow.

Till at last there came One Woman, a marvel of loveliness,
And she whispered to him: "Do you love me?" And he answered that woman, "Yes."
And she said: "Put your arms around me, and kiss me, and hold me -- so --"
But fiercely he drew back, saying: "This thing is wrong, and I know."

Then sweetly she mocked his scruples, and softly she him beguiled:
"You, who are verily man among men, speak with the tongue of a child.
We have outlived the old standards; we have burst, like an over-tight thong,
The ancient, outworn, Puritanic traditions of Right and Wrong."

Then the Master feared for His angel, and called him again to His side,
For oh, the woman was wondrous, and oh, the angel was tried!
And deep in his hell sang the Devil, and this was the strain of his song:
"The ancient, outworn, Puritanic traditions of Right and Wrong."

The Virgin of Siena

Today is the feast of St. Catherine Benincasa of Siena, Virgin and Doctor of the Church. She is actually the only one of the formally recognized Doctors of the Church who was a layperson, although she was a Dominican Tertiary. From one of her letters, to Catarina di Scetto:

So thou seest that we conceive virtues through God, and bring them to the birth for our neighbour. Thou knowest well that for the necessity of thy neighbour thou bringest forth the child charity that is within thy soul, and patience in the wrongs which thou receivest from him. Thou givest him prayer, particularly to those who have done thee wrong. And thus we ought to do; if men are untrue to us, we ought to be true to them, and faithfully to seek their salvation; loving them of grace, and not by barter. That is, do thou beware not to love thy neighbour for thine own profit; for that would not be faithful love, and thou wouldst not respond to the love which God bears thee. For as God has loved thee of grace, so He wills that since thou canst not return this love to Him, thou return it to thy neighbour, loving him of grace and not by barter, as I said. Neither if thou art wronged, nor if thou shouldst see love toward thee, or thy joy or profit lessened, must thou lessen or stint love toward thy neighbour; but love him tenderly, bearing and enduring his faults; and beholding with great consolation and reverence the servants of God.

Beware lest thou do like mad and foolish people who want to set themselves to investigate and judge the deeds and habits of the servants of God. He who does this is entirely worthy of severe rebuke. Know that it would not be different from setting a law and rule to the Holy Spirit if we wished to make the servants of God all walk in our own way—a thing which could never be done. Let the soul inclined to this kind of judgment think that the root of pride is not yet out, nor true charity toward the neighbour planted—that is, the loving him by grace and not by barter. Then let us love the servants of God, and not judge them. Nay, it befits us to love in general every rational creature: those who are outside of grace we must love with grief and bitterness over their fault, because they wrong God and their own soul. Thus thou shalt be in accord with that sweet enamoured Paul, who mourns with those who mourn, and joys with those who joy; thus thou shalt mourn with those who are in mournful state, through desire for the honour of God and for their salvation; and thou shalt joy with the servants of God who rejoice, possessing God through loving tenderness.

Salutary advice for today, I think, when we seem often tempted to assume that everyone must "walk in our own way".  One of the values of reflecting on the saints is seeing how utterly different from each other they often are.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Michael Collins (1930-2021)

Michael Collins died today of cancer. Born in Rome, Italy, to an American military attaché, he lived the military family life, eventually graduating from West Point and joining the Air Force. He became a test pilot and was inspired by John Glenn's flight in the Mercury Atlas 6, the first American orbital spaceflight, which led him to apply to be an astronaut. He was turned down. He did more space-related training and applied again, this time being accepted. As an astronaut, he specialized in pressure suits and EVAs. He became a backup crewmember of Gemini 7, although he wasn't called into action, but by the rotation system then in place, took his place as primary crewmember for Gemini 10. Due to problems that had happened with Gemini 9, the conditions for Gemini 10, its schedule already heavy with experiments, the mission-specific training had to be rushed. Part of his mission was to take photographs while on a spacewalk; he would later say that it felt like being a Roman god riding a chariot across the sky.

Returning from a successful mission, he was assigned to the backup crew for Apollo 2, but was reassigned to  Apollo 8 when Apollo 2 was canceled. Necessary knee surgery prevented him from going up; instead, since he had done all the training, he was assigned to be capsule communicator at Mission Control, assisting with flight control. He was then assigned to Apollo 11, and designed the mission patch for it. He was offered as well to be put on the list for Apollo 14, but, tired of some of the strains the astronautical life was putting on him, he decided instead that Apollo 11, succeed or fail, would be his last chance for returning to space.

Up Apollo 11 went, and into lunar orbit. The Eagle sub-module descended with Armstrong and Aldrin; it was Collins, who of course had the better view of things, who was responsible for warning them if there were any externally visible problems with the module or landing gear. Collins, alone in the Columbia main craft, continued orbiting the moon, alone but not lonely, since there was plenty to do. He kept the lights on, performed a number of maintenance tasks, and worried about Armstrong and Aldrin on the surface. After Eagle rejoined Columbia, they returned home heroes.

After some time in the State Department, Collins became Director of the National Air and Space Museum, then later an undersecretary for the Smithsonian, then tried his hand at various business ventures.

Twenty-four people have flown to the moon. We remember most the twelve who have left their footprints there, but the others are no less deserving to be remembered for their deed of glory. And for eight days in 1969, Michael Collins was one of those to accomplish the greatest deed of our age.

Circular insignia: eagle with wings outstretched holds olive branch on Moon with Earth in background, in blue and gold border.
By NASA, Public Domain, Link

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Two Poem Drafts


Ithaca lies at the end of the road,
a long journey on the dolphin's riding,
the wisdom learned through returning again
to the hearth's grace.
Long are the years of the voyage,
the dangers may be dark and vile,
but Ithaca is waiting, waiting,
Ithaca awaits across the water's way.
Many are the things that dazzle,
the all-distracting dreams,
the siren, the enchantress, the lotus,
all dangle like fishermen's lures,
but a heart set is a powerful mover
and each day you reach the next morning
is the sweetest of splendid victories
until Ithaca itself you view.
So pray to the gods at the outset;
never let yourself think life over
until the Ithaca-day
when the sun's sacred dawn
sees you settled in heart
and finally home.

Poetry Writing

I wrote a word.
The word then grew
and turned into a forest fair
that perfume-scented evening air,
extending itself outward everywhere,
ten thousand thousand trees in brilliant green
and thick with branch and laughing, leafy stem,
the trees from dawn to noon to gently falling evendim
would speak new words
to forest beasts and birds
that never human ear had heard.

Music on My Mind

Kate Bush, "Running Up that Hill". There are many, many covers of this song. I particularly like Placebo's very glum version and First Aid Kit's more wistful version, in part because I think these are moods that go very well with the lyrics, which are about how men and women can sometimes be unintelligible to each other.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Ambassador, Part V

Part IV

The Matriarch's guards took me through some winding ways and down a dusty road to an old country estate. I confess that as we proceeded I had a small crisis of confidence about whether I knew what I was doing. In a situation in which you could be assassinated for anything, being taken by soldiers to a deserted house is nerve-wracking even if you asked for it.

I breathed a small sigh of relief to find the Matriarch waiting for me in a small rustic dining room. That, at least, meant that she was curious. The shark was intrigued by the bait. I just wish the bait were not myself.

"Your message was very interesting and unexpected," said the Matriarch.

"My mind must be losing its edge," I said as I sat down. "I was baffled by such an abundance of pickle vendors. 'How can there be so many?' I thought. Competition alone should slim their numbers, but they are everywhere. And around here, it's rather like selling water or air. They would need some other income, but under circumstances that still made it reasonable to keep selling pickles. But then, of course, it was clear. The pickle vendors are all spies."

The Matriarch smiled. "'Spies' is such a harsh word. Most of them are not formally agents, if that is what you mean. Most just know that they get paid princely sums for pickles as long as they also share interesting information that they have picked up while vending. I have made a few very poor pickle vendors immensely rich because they were intelligent men who knew valuable information when they saw it. Only a few are in my direct employ, mostly to keep an eye on the rest."

It is not a good sign that she is being so forthcoming, I thought. Out loud, I said, "Yes, although those are fairly easy to pick out. Too suspicious. But, as I said, my wits must be growing dim that I did not see it immediately."

"Oh, there is no point in being so hard on yourself," said the Matriarch. "As far as I can tell, the spies of the Five Cities still have not found it out. You have a face for playing a handsome, stupid, and harmless Empire-man, but you will have to put on a much more perfect act to convince me of the stupidity part. Or the harmless part, for that matter."

"I am glad that you do not think me harmless," I said.

"And why is that?"

"Because if I were genuinely harmless, I would have nothing to offer. But I do have something to offer."

She looked at me a long moment, then said, "Well? You have my attention for the moment."

I looked at the wall, which was decorated with bright copper pots and pans, thinking through my words very carefully. "It is not a secret that my family is out of favor, and what is more, we have managed to make so many enemies that we are out of favor not just with the Emperor, which would not matter so much, but both Consuls and the leaders of several minority factions in the Senate. We have, to say it nicely, played our politics dangerously, so dangerously a weaker house would have been destroyed. Yet for all our enemies we still endure. There are many reasons for that. But one is that we are fantastically wealthy, far wealthier than we would ever show externally. The obligations of aristocracy are extremely expensive, and most aristocratic families drive themselves into poverty at some point or another; there are endless situations where you could like bright and shining to the world with just a little more money to get things done. Because of it, even many of our enemies owe us favors. Not that that deters them from trying to destroy us, of course, but it does hamper any attempts to do it directly. That would look so mercantile, you see."

"That does sound like an aristocracy," the Matriarch said drily.

"Aristocrats cannot directly dirty their hands with most kinds of trade, so the only way you can get the vast sums that you certainly need are by inheritance, by marriage, or by land. Land is tricky business, but my family are very good at it. And the most basic truth when it comes to wealth by real estate is that nothing impoverishes like fixation on a single idea. If the land seems bad, find a use for it. If the plan is not working, change it. If you do not like the deal, make a better deal." I took a deep breath. "The Five Cities made a deal with the Empire -- a real estate agreement, in fact. The Empire would overlook the Republic invading Syan in exchange for some nice mining lands. A byproduct of this was moving me into place as an expendable piece. Syan would certainly kill me in retaliation if the Republic failed. If the Republic succeeded, I would need to be removed to cover their tracks, so I would be killed, and the death would probably be blamed on Syan. I do not like that deal. So I would like to negotiate a better deal."

The Matriarch narrowed her eyes. "You would be willing to betray the Empire and violate the agreement between the Empire and the Five Cities?"

"Of course not," I said. "I already told you that I will not act against the interests of the Empire. Even if it were not a matter of honor, my betrayal would certainly mean most of my family being imprisoned and probably poisoned. I cannot stand most of them, but it would be immensely embarrassing to be the idiot who got them killed. I will not be a destroyer of my own house. You have said, and my sources in the Empire confirm, that the agreement between the Empire and the Five Cities is that the Empire will not militarily intervene in the Five Cities invasion. In exchange, the Empire gets some nice lands. So I propose an agreement between the Empire and Syan, one that will benefit the Empire more."

"Go on."

"The Five Cities plan is based on the assumption that Syan's army is in disarray. But I am convinced that this is not true. The whole agreement was based on a falsehood, and, what is more, one that originates with Syan itself. You are playing vulnerable to draw the Republic in; it is not an opportunity for the Republic to expand but an ambush. And it is foolish to make treaties with republics, anyway; they are states that by their nature cannot make up their minds, nor see anything beyond their own interests. They will renege as soon as they see an opportunity. It was just a bad idea. But we will uphold the agreement in the manner that befits our own interests. When the Republic's plan fails and Syan invades the Five Cities, I will personally guarantee that the Empire will not intervene militarily. I will not inform the Republic about Syan's plans. And I will even tell you when and where the Empire expects the Five Cities to attempt their plans, which is, after all, not a military intervention. The Five Cities made their agreement thinking they would not lose; I know they will. The Empire will never get the mining lands promised by the Republic, because the Republic will fail. But if Syan will make an agreement with the Empire promising Republican lands for all of the services I just mentioned, the problem is solved. And there is also no reason to kill me."

"There is no reason for Syan to kill you if you follow through."

"Well," I said, " I would not be the first nobleman to serve as treaty hostage for the Empire. In a sense, I was  a treaty hostage already without knowing it; now at least I will be one on my own terms."

"And the Republic will certainly try to kill you."

"Yes, that is the trickier part. I am currently surrounded by Republican spies and so will have to arrange some sort of coup against my own staff."

The Matriarch smiled. "I could lend you guards, if you need them."

I laughed, and I hope it did not sound too strained. "Invite Syan to invade an Imperial embassy? The Empire would have me executed just for that, and certainly declare war on Syan for it. No, I have other plans in motion for that. It is a dangerous situation, but not actually a difficult one."

"If the Republic kills you before all this is done, what good would that be to Syan?"

"You would be where you were, except you would know when the Empire thinks the Republic will strike. You have but to make the agreement and you will already be better off than you were. And I am sure the Five Cities will be taken by surprise, in any case. It's a basic truth of politics that a republic will always assume that what it wants to be true is true."

The Matriarch laughed softly, reflecting a moment. Then she said, "The Empire may be rotting from the inside, but it is good to see that someone still has the old oak in them."

"Every forest has rot," I replied. "But there is a lot of wood in a forest."

We were quiet. Then the Matriarch said, "You have not actually told me what you expect Syan to give the Empire."

"Ah," I said. "The westernmost province of the Five Cities, Delnetica, is across the Great River from the Diamond Lake region of the Empire. Very rich farmland. And it is divided from the City of Delnetica by a long ridge of hills -- nothing difficult to get over, but it would make a serviceable border. The City you can keep, if you like. Your conquest is almost guaranteed; it will be the easiest of the Five Cities to conquer. And it is all old Imperial land, of course -- all these little republics only exist by infesting and devouring parts of empires. A former subprovince for Diamond Lake. And it would provide a buffer territory between the Empire and the new provinces of Syan."

"Looking to be a subprovincial governor, I take it?"

"I do not deny that would be nice. There are always wonderfully rich estates available after a conquest. But no, that would be in the hands of the Senate, and I am no position to guide the hand of the Senate in that direction. But I do hope to leverage this to be able to return home. No offense, Matriarch, but Syan is not a comfortable posting."

So a deal was struck, and I let the Matriarch know the information received from my brother's informants, that the Republic would strike in two weeks, on the fifth of the month of Springbloom. And I spent the next two weeks hoping that neither the Five Cities nor the Matriarch would decide to kill me before I could finally get home. I spent a lot of my days away from my office and inspecting and drilling my guards, which, I will admit, involved quite a bit of drinking with them as well. Which, of course, made it easy, on the fourth of Springblossom, to have the guard, who were entirely on my side by that point, arrest my staff on charges of treason. They had been passing as Imperial citizens, after all, so I had them tried on treason charges. It was easy to find evidence that they were passing information. They could not get out of it by claiming to be citizens of the Republic, because then I could have had them executed on the spot as spies; and had there been no evidence, I would simply have arrested them and sent them under Imperial guard to the Empire for trial, and let us say they would not have had an easy or safe journey. Imperial guards are always strapping young men who are eager for adventure but longing for home, and they had isolated the poor things in the barracks without hope of either, and without any good food, to boot. Amateurs, amateurs. They never stood a chance.

The war between the Republic and Syan lasted nine weeks; by the third, it was clear that the Republic was woefully unprepared for the forces it faced, and by the seventh Syan's victory was assured. The Matriarch fulfilled her part of the agreement, even if (as I suspect) it was mostly because she had more than enough on her hands in pacifying the former Republic; as her proclamation declared, she liberated Western Delnetica from its oppressors and returned it to its rightful place in the Empire. I was pleased by this until I received a letter from my brother congratulating himself on having successfully used the information I had provided to become subprovincial governor of the new territory, settling down into a splendid estate. The man is a venomous and verminous weasel in every sense of the term, and I had further proof of it on receiving a letter from the Second Consul congratulating me on having salvaged the bungling of the Five Cities and directing me to remain as ambassador of Syan, "your extraordinary value in that position having been passionately argued by your brother." No one stabs in the back like a sibling, and there is a truly fundamental truth of politics for you. The Matriarch, on hearing this, said, in her materteral way, "At least there will still be a pretty face around here."

In any case, that is how I survived my first exposure to the Matriarch of Syan, built a solution to an apparently insoluble problem out of nothing, and expanded Imperial territory by committing the Empire not to do anything. I will not lie and say there was no gamble or guesswork involved, but when I had to roll the dice, I rolled it well, if I do says so myself. And with that, I can put "The End" on my tale, although I hope that is not an omen for either my career or my life; ambassadorships to Syan have a tendency to stamp a rather gruesome "Finis" on both.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Fortnightly Book, April 25

 This year I'm getting a bit of Scandinavian literature here and there in the Fortnightly Book, and the two so far -- Heimskringla and Kristin Lavransdatter -- have been monster tomes. But not all Scandinavian literature is in the weight class of Russian novels or Victorian three-volume works. So for this fortnight, let's look at some featherweight sagas.

I have two books in the Penguin Classics, Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, that give a selection of these shorter works from Icelandic literature. Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories has seven short works:

Hrafnkel's Saga
Thorstein the Staff-Struck
Hreidar the Fool
Halldor Snorrason
Audun's Story
Ivar's Story

All seven date from the thirteenth century. The first three are set in Iceland and the last four in Norway and Denmark, although the introduction by the translator, Hermann Pallson, notes that while the setting is a vivid and important part of the story in the first three, in the latter four it is highly stylized, and thus probably written by people who had never actually been to the places that are mentioned. All of the works are anonymous, although the first is, with some plausibility, usually attributed to Abbot Brand Jonson, and give realistic, although of course somewhat selective, views of the lives of Icelanders in the period. And, of course, there is the Icelandic obsession with law that one finds in most medieval Icelandic literature. But the issues touched on are often recurring ones in human life: legal problems, the difficulties of the poor in getting justice when their enemy is a rich man, an old warrior's problems in trying to re-accustom himself to peaceful community life, love triangles, religious pilgrimage, the importance of good company to the virtuous life.

Very different is The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, which is one of the most famous Icelandic sagas. Set in a semi-legendary time of sorcery and magic, this fourteenth-century work is a cousin to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; both works are about Danish kings, particularly focusing on the Skyldings/Skjoldungs, which leads to the same people being mentioned in both, and parts of each story clearly have the same root-legends, although taken in very different directions. The translator, Jesse Bock, in his introduction (parts of which can be read online) notes that it is, like many such sagas, pulled together from different sources, and in a sense has more to do with King Hrolf Kraki's court, in somewhat like the way stories of King Arthur or Charlemagne tend to focus more on their courts.

Jackson Crawford had a series of videos on one of the key characters (and the most Beowulf-like) from the saga, Bodvar Bjarki:

Bodvar Bjarki, Part 1

Bodvar Bjarki, Part 2

Bodvar Bjarki, Part 3