Saturday, May 08, 2021

Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories; The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki


Opening Passages: Sagas and thaettir (short stories) are often masterly in their to-the-point openings, so it makes sense to give a taste of each. From Hrafnkel's Saga:

It was in the days of King Harald Fine-Hair that a man called Hallfred brought his ship to Iceland, putting in at Breiddale east of the Fljotsdale District. On board were his wife and their fifteen-year-old son Hrafnkel, a handsome and promising youngster. (p. 35)

From Thorstein the Staff-Struck:

There was a man called Thorarin who lived at Sunnudale; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce viking in his younger years, and even in his old age he was very hard to deal with. He had an only son, Thorstein, who was a tall man, powerful but even-tempered; he worked so hard on his father's farm that three other men could hardly have done better. Thorarin had little money, but a good many weapons. He and his son owned some breeding horses and that was their main source of income, for the young colts they sold never failed in spirit or strength. (p. 72)

From Ale-Hood:

There was a man called Thorhall who lived at Thorhallsstead in Blawoods. He was a wealthy man and getting on in years when this story happened. Thorhall was small and ugly, with no particular skills except for being a good carpenter and blacksmith. He used to make money at the Althing brewing ale, and through this he got to know all the important people, who bought more ale than most. As often happens, not everybody thought much of the ale, and the man who sold it wasn't always well liked either. Thorhall wasn't open-handed -- indeed he was said to be rather stingy. His eye-sight was poor, and he used to wear a hood, particularly at the Althing; and since the people there couldn't always remember his name, they started calling him Ale-Hood, and the nickname stuck. (p. 82)

From Hreidar the Fool:

There was a man called Thord, a small, good-looking man. He had a brother, Hreidar, who was ugly and so stupid he could scarcely take care of himself. Hreidar was an exceptionally fast runner, very strong and even-tempered. He stayed at home, but Thord was a sea-going trader and a retainer of King Magnus who thought very highly of him. (p. 94)

From Halldor Snorrason:

Halldor Snorrason had been with King Harald in Constantinople, and came with him west from Russia to Norway. He was thought highly of and favoured by the king, staying with him the first winter in Norway at Kaupang. As winter wore on and spring was coming, traders started early preparations for their voyages, as there had been little trade between Norway and other countries because of hostilities with Denmark. (p. 109)

From Audun's Story:

There was a man in the Westfjords called Audun; he was not well off and worked as a farmhand for a kinsman of his, a man called Thorstein. (p. 121)

From Ivar's Story:

A man called Ivar was staying at the court of King Eystein. Ivar was an Icelander, well-born and intelligent and a good poet. The king thought highly of him, and his fondness for Ivar is borne out by the following episode. (p. 129)

From The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki:

Here begins the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, and first is written the tale of King Frodi.

A man was named Halfdan and another Frodi; the two were brothers. They were the sons of a king and each ruled his own kingdom. King Halfdan was mild-mannered and easygoing; he was quiet and good-natured, but King Frodi was the harshest and greediest of men. King Halfdan had three children: two of them were sons. The third, a daughter named Signy, was the eldest. She was married to Jarl Saevil. At the time of these events Halfdan's sons were young; one was named Hroar and the other Helgi. Their foster-father was named Regin, and he loved the boys deeply. (p. 1)

Summary: In Hrafnkel's Saga, Hrafnkel is a ruthless bully and an enthusiast for the god Freyr; he has a horse, Freyfaxi, half of the ownership of which he has given to Freyr, and about whom he has sworn a sacred oath: if anyone rides Freyfaxi without Hrafnkel's permission, Hrafnkel will kill him. One of Hrafnkel's men, Einar, in an emergency rides Freyfaxi, and the violation of the rule is soon made obvious; Hrafnkel to some extent sees where this is going, but his oath is on the line. He kills Einar, which naturally leads to bad blood with Einar's family; Hrafnkel refuses to pay wergild on the grounds that he pays wergild to no one, but he concedes that this killing is the worst thing he is ever done, and so is willing to give support for Einar's family. What Hrafnkel offers is, in monetary terms, far more than the wergild would have been, but this is of course not the point of wergild, the real point of which is honor as recognized by law. The deliberate refusal to render the legal due and recognize Einar and his family as equals is an active insult, and Einar's family is furious over it. They set out to get justice by bringing a lawsuit against Hranfkel, but it's tricky. Because Hrafnkel is a powerful chieftain, they will need chieftains to support their side, but Hrafnkel is both powerful and notorious for being a vindictive bully, so nobody really wants to get into an unnecessary fight with him. By great luck, however, they meet up with Thorkel, a man of powerful family who has been away from Iceland for some years; Thorkel, who is usually away, does not have the worries about facing down Hrafnkel that others do, and he manages to maneuver his family into supporting the family of Einar. With that help, Hrafnkel is declared outlaw -- that is, literally outside the protection of law, so that if anyone kills him or takes his property, there is no legal recourse. He is surprised by Einar's family, and given a choice by Einar's cousin Sam, to die or become Sam's subordinate. Hrafnkel chooses to live, although Thorkel warns that it is entirely a mistake to let Hranfkel live. Being so humiliated will mellow Hrafnkel and break his devotion to Freyr, but that is not the end of the story; Hrafnkel will get his revenge.

In Thorstein the Staff-Struck, Thorstein gets involved in a horse-fight (like a dog-fight but with horses, a popular medieval Scandinavian sport) with a man named Thord, one that goes very wrong when Thorstein strikes Thord's horse with his staff and Thord strikes Thorstein (hence is derogatory nickname). Thorstein recognizes that this can get bad quickly, and is willing to pretend that Thord's strike was an accident, but Thorstein's old viking father, Thorarin, is furious that his son is such a coward. He presses the matter until Thorstein kills Thord. Thord was the servant of another man, the chieftain Bjarni, and Bjarni, also seeing where this is going, tries to minimize the matter by having Thorstein declared outlaw but not pursuing the matter any further. People will not let this rest, though -- as chieftain, one of Bjarni's major responsibilities is protecting those under him -- and so inevitably has to go after Thorstein. After Thorstein kills two more of his servants, Bjarni decides that his only real option is to go against Thorstein himself, one on one. With some very clever thinking, Bjarni is able to use the duel bring the matter to a happy conclusion, but it's dicey business.

Ale-Hood is the story of a lawsuit (a perennially interesting subject for medieval Icelanders) over an accidental fire and how the (very disliked) title character managed to get justice by a stroke of luck. Halldor Snorrason is about the deteriorating friendship between the title character and King Harald, who start as close companions and end up hardly being able to stand each other. The rest of the 'other stories' in the collection are making-one's-fortune tales. Hreidar the Fool is a comedic tale about a good-natured idiot who manages to become extremely successful by doing everything wrong. Audun's Story is a charming story about a clever poor man who, seizing an unexpected opportunity to buy a polar bear (a major luxury item in medieval Scandinavia) despite its costing him everything he has, manages to get a pilgrimage to Rome out of it, as well as the respect of two feuding kings whom he brings closer together. Ivar's Story is about how King Eystein helps the title character get over having lost the woman he loved to his brother.

And this brings us to The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, which in our modern vernacular is a story about superheroes. The ruthless Frodi murders his brother Halfdan. Halfdan's sons, Helgi and Hroar, are hidden by a clever farmer with knowledge of magical arts, and therefore survive despite Frodi's attempts to use every magical means to track them down; they will eventually succeed in avenging their father and set out to become kings, with Hroar moving to Northumbria (he is the King Hrothgar of Beowulf) and Helgi, the wilder of the two, trying to woo Queen Olof of the Saxons. Helgi's attempt, which is far too rough, goes very wrong; Olof humiliates him, in response to which he eventually returns the humiliation on her by kidnapping her and raping her. She bears a daughter, whom she spitefully names Yrsa after the name of her dog, and rather than raising her in court sends her to be raised by shepherds. Helgi, in the meantime, after an extended period of exciting adventures has decided to see what other adventures can be found in Queen Olof's lands. He disguises himself as a beggar and while venturing about comes across a teenaged shepherd girl and falls in love with her. You can see where this is going. Helgi and Yrsa marry, not knowing that they are father and daughter, and they have a son, Hrólfr or Hrolf, whose destiny will inevitably not be that of normal men. Olof eventually gets further vengeance against Helgi when she busts up his otherwise happy marriage by letting Yrsa know the real story; Yrsa flees and eventually marries King Adils (Adhils) of Sweden, a powerful and dangerous king who likes to dabble in dark arts. Helgi tries to reclaim her, but is killed by Adils; Hrolf, still a young man, succeeds his father as king and, as he is brave, open-handed, and trustworthy, champions begin collecting around him. 

Most of the saga consists of the tale of how the most important of these champions end up in Hrolf's court. Svipdag is an extraordinary warrior who attempts to make his fortune in the court of King Adils, but coming to regard Adils as stingy, leaves and ends up with King Hrolf, along with his almost equally impressive two brothers. The star of the show, though, is Bodvar Bjarki. His father Bjorn (whose name means 'bear'), having repudiated the love of a queen, Queen Hvit, was cursed by her to be a a werebear, turning into a bear every day; his mother Bera (whose name means 'bear'), who is the reason Bjorn refused Hvit's seduction, discovers this but stays with him anyway. Bjorn eventually is killed, but not before prophesying that she will bear him three sons, but she must not eat any bear offered to her by the queen. Bjorn is killed, but Bera is not able to avoid eating one morsel and tasting another, and the result is that her first two sons are visibly beast-men. The third, Bodvar (whose name means 'battle'), is, however, handsome and human-looking, although there is more to him than meets the eye. Bodvar avenges his father, and then makes his way to Hrolf's court, where he shows himself to be an unstoppable warrior, able to take on multiple strong men simultaneously. There he meets a puny wimp named Hott, who is mocked and mistreated by the warriors. He discovers that an evil dragon-like winged monster preys on Hrolf's hall each winter, and sets out to kill it, forcing the frightened Hott to go with him. After Bodvar kills the beast, he forces Hott to drink its blood and eat its heart. He then picks a fight with Hott, in the course of which Hott sees what Bodvar has done: the monster's heart has given Hott extraordinary strength. They beat each other up a while as only good friends can do, and the result is that Hott now has confidence as well, since he can almost match the superhuman Bodvar. When another monster menaces the hall, Hott kills it and is renamed by the king Hjalti ('hilt'), after the king's own sword. He eventually becomes known as Hjalti the Magnanimous because, despite his previous mistreatment, he doesn't hold it against anyone. Thus we get the key champions:

The hall was now arranged in the following manner: Bodvar, who had become the most esteemed and the highest valued, sat at the king's right. Then came Hjalti the Magnanimous....On the king's left hand sat the three brothers -- Svipdag, Hvitserk and Beygad -- so important had they become. Next came the twelve berserkers. All the other heroes were then seated on both sides the length of the stronghold, but they are not named here. (pp. 54-55)

Hrolf sets out to avenge his father. This is not an easy task; Adils has only grown more powerful. As they are heading to fight Adils, they meet a one-eyed farmer named Hrani and stay at his house. There is something strange about him, because despite continuing and making progress, they keep meeting him, and end up staying at his house three nights in a row. Each time he gives them some kind of advice, which they take; in particular, Hrolf sends most of his men home, keeping only the twelve best men. They make it to the court of Adils, and manage to survive despite the deceptions of Adils; when they are attacked, the wreak havoc on Adils's court, and he is forced to flee. Hrolf and his men meet Hrani again; Hrani tries to give them some weapons, but they decline the gift because the weapons are so ugly. Hrani is furious and kicks them out; Bodvar later realizes that they have made a potentially fatal mistake, because Hrani is Odin, and thus if they keep pursuing Adils, their luck will not hold. They return home and Hrolf attempts to stay out of trouble.

But it's not so easy to stay out of trouble when you are a Scandinavian king. There is a king, Hjorvard, who is Hrolf's vassal, but only because Hrolf had early on managed to trick him. Hjorvard is married to a woman named Skuld, who is an immensely powerful sorceress. She is in fact Hrolf's half-sister (and, I suppose, also his aunt), being the daughter of Helgi and an elfin woman from the sea. Hjorvard and Skuld rebel against Hrolf, and it is civil war. But arrayed against Hrolf and his champions is Skuld and Odin, and they are not fighting just an ordinary army but also a host of trolls and, what is worse, the warriors they kill do not stop fighting. Hrolf and his champions are more than a match for any human army, but it's another story when it comes to fighting eldritch creatures and the undead. Nonetheless, in the great battle that follows, they do extraordinarily well. At one point, they find that a great and indestructible bear is fighting along with them, and none of Skuld's creatures or the undead can stand against it. But Hjalti notices that Bodvar is missing and finds him sitting alone in a room; Hjalti, bewildered, protests his avoidance of battle, but when they return to the battlefield, they discover that the bear has vanished (it was, of course, a sort of dream-form of Bodvar himself), and the tide of battle is turning against Hrolf. Hrolf and his champions die, the end. Well, not quite the end; there's always an avenging.

I often look at adaptations, usually movies or radio, but this time, I looked at a literary adaptation, Poul Anderson's Hrolf Kraki's Saga. The book is essentially an adaptation of the saga as a fantasy novel; this is actually relatively easy to do, allowing for the shift from the dry spare narrativity of the saga to the more psychologically lush and chatty modes of novel, so it is a very faithful retelling. (Of course, as Anderson notes in his foreword, one major difference is that all of the characters in the saga are much more brutal and ruthless than you would expect in your typical fantasy novel.) There are some differences. Anderson has his version told by a tenth-century Englishwoman; this frame doesn't really affect the story much, except it gives Anderson an explanation of the shift of style, and it also allows him to bring in closely related English material without having to worry about anachronism or the fact that some of his names are Anglo-Saxon and some are Norse. There are some differences in the ending; a completely ordinary guy named Vogg manages to attach himself to Hrolf and his champions, promising to be faithful and to avenge the king if the king is ever killed; Hrolf obviously finds this funny, and notes that other men are more likely to do that. Both the saga and the novel let Vogg fulfill his promise (after all, all the champions are dead by that point), but they choose very different ways of doing so. And one very noticeable difference is that Anderson all the way through calls Bodvar Bjarki, 'Bjarki', treating 'Bodvar' as a nickname he gets from his excellence in battle. The saga actually does exactly the opposite, calling him Bodvar almost all the way through, and treating 'Bjarki' as the nickname. I suspect Anderson does this based on scholarly speculation -- some scholars speculate that the character's original name was Bjarki, which, like the names of his father and mother, means 'bear'.

But one thing even faithful adaptations do, perhaps especially do, is bring out aspects of the original, including aspects that don't get adapted. And one of things that I think really shifts between the saga author and Anderson is related to the saga author's explicit Christianity. Looking around, it seems common for people to treat the author's occasional Christian remarks (e.g., about Odin as an evil spirit) as Christian intrusions into an essentially pagan tale. But comparing the saga with Anderson's paganized version, I think it's clear that this is not true at all. The entire structure of the ending of the saga depends precisely on the things that saga author is pointing out when he makes his Christian comments. It is in fact integral to how he builds up to the end of the tale that Hrolf and his champions are (1) noble in such a way that their paganism is merely due to their ignorance and (2) doomed to fail because they are not Christian and therefore have no means of achieving victory against demonic powers. On the basis of this, the author is able to magnify both their nobility and their achievement, in a way that can't be done in a more pagan telling of the tale. Hrolf and his champions take on dark powers no human, however gifted, is equipped to fight, but through bravery, intelligence, and noble brotherhood they do astoundingly well. And what is more, despite the fact that they fail, only they could have done as well as they do; the only way they could have succeeded was with the help of God. As the author puts it, calling to evidence a learned authority:

'And events turned out as expected,' said Master Galterus. 'Human strength cannot withstand such fiendish power, unless the strength of God is employed against it. That alone stood between you and victory, King Hrolf,' said the Master; 'you had no knowledge of your Creator.' (p. 78)

Favorite Passages: 

From Thorstein the Staff-Struck:

One evening after Bjarni and his wife Rannveig had gone to bed, she said to him, 'What do you think everyone in the district is talking about these days?'

'I couldn't say,' said Bjarni. 'In my opinion most people talk a lot of rubbish.'

'This is what people are mainly talking about now,' she continued: 'They're wondering how far Thorstein the Staff-Struck can go before you bother to take revenge. He's killed three of your servants, and your supporters are beginning to doubt whether you can protect them, seeing that you've failed to avenge this. You often take action when you shouldn't and hold back when you should.'

'It's the same old story,' said Bjarni, 'no one seems willing to learn from another man's lesson. Thorstein has never killed anyone without a good reason -- but still, I'll think about your suggestion.' (p. 77)

From The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki:

Then Hott went boldly against the beast, thrusting at it as soon as he was within striking distance. The beast fell down dead.

Bodvar said, 'See, Sire, what he has now accomplished.'

The king answered, 'Certainly he has changed greatly, but Hott alone did not kill the beast; rather you did it.'

Bodvar said, 'That may be.'

The king said, 'I knew when you came here that few would be your equal, but it seems to me that your finest achievement is that you made Hott into another champion. He was previously thought to be a man in whom there was little probability of much luck. I do not want him called Hott any longer; instead, from now on he will be called Hjalti. You will now be called after the sword Golden Hilt.' (p. 52)

Recommendation: All Highly Recommended, including Anderson's novelization.


Hrafnkel's Saga and Other Stories, Hermann Pallson, tr., Penguin Books (New York: 1971).

The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, Jesse L. Byock, tr., Penguin Books (New York: 1998).

Poul Anderson, Hrolf Kraki's Saga, Baen Books (New York: 1973).

Poem a Day 8


The sky with cracking rumble growls,
rain showers down, the wind howls,
gray darkness overshadows all,
crackle-lightning sparks, thunders fall,
winds to every war-torn compass-point
rush and hurry. Worlds are out of joint,
wild, wavering, swept away by storm.
Rolling shadows with electric whips
across the roads and highways rip,
dripping drops of splattered rain in rush,
carve rivers, fill them, push them, make them gush.
The clouds like feathered serpents crackle, dance,
twist and writhe in mists by cunning chance,
dream-begotten in the darkened virgin sky,
emerald-green and arrow-pierced by days gone by.
The dawnstar-serpent, wise of ways,
clocks the turning time, the cycling days,
fury-storms over heavens high,
bleeds for men, in blazing burning dies.
The second sun in wrath will gust,
terror to wicked men, hope to just;
rumble-laden heavens ripped with lightning-flame
speak submission and the precious serpent's name.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Teaching Online

 It's been a complicated end of a term, in part because this term was even more hectic (and continues to be even more hectic) than last year's terms. I was interested to see the results of a recent survey by Thomas Nadelhoffer on online philosophy teaching. I often don't have the same perspective on teaching as my colleagues, but in this case, my own experience matches the survey results fairly well. I didn't take the survey, but I thought I would give my own answers to some the questions here, since it makes a convenient summary.

(1) During pandemic -- Did you teach partly or fully online during the pandemic? YES -- fully.

(2) Before the pandemic, had you ever taught a course that was either partly or fully online? YES -- I have taught several hybrid Introduction to Philosophy courses.

(3) Which of the following formats for teaching did you adopt -- fully online asynchronous, fully online synchronous, fully online asynchronous + synchronous,  hybrid? FULLY ONLINE SYNCHRONOUS, in the sense that I was assigned courses that were fully online synchronous courses. But I'm not sure it's quite a well-formed question; a synchronous course, properly speaking, is one that requires in-person class meetings, but they will often have an asynchronous component. For that matter, my in-person classes always have an asynchronous component, since I often assign learning modules.

(4) Which course levels have I taught online? 100-LEVEL (Intro) and 200-LEVEL (Ethics), mostly the latter.

(5) When you first started teaching online, did you expect to ever teach online again after the pandemic? YES. 

(6) How much time and energy did you spend preparing in advance for the courses you taught online? A GREAT DEAL. Online courses require a great deal of frontloading -- a lot has to be set into place already for it to work properly during the term.

(7) How much time and energy did teaching online require during the semester relative to your normal in-person courses? MORE. (That was only to be expected.)

(8) What's the best way to describe your expectations before you started teaching online? SOMEWHAT PESSIMISTIC, since it was originally all done in a scramble.

(9) Did your experiences match your expectations? More or less.

(10) Do you plan to teach online after the pandemic? MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT. 

(11) Now that you have taught online, do you view teaching philosophy online more or less favourably than before? SOMEWHAT LESS FAVORABLY. Frankly, this really brought confirmed to me all the reasons why I never went through the process to certify with the Department for teaching online-only courses.

(12) Based on your experiences, how confident are you in your ability to teach philosophy online in a way that is engaging and effective? CONFIDENT. Students regularly tell me that they find me engaging, so I have confirmation there. 'Effective' is always a trickier thing to assess.

(13) Based on your experiences, how confident are you in other people's ability to teach philosophy online in a way that is engaging and effective? CONFIDENT. I actually think many instructors over-worry about their ability to handle this kind of situation.

(14) What do you think the biggest challenges are when it comes to teaching philosophy online? The single biggest challenge is maintaining student motivation and momentum, far and away. But I think one of the common answers -- in-class engagement -- is also a complicated issue. It's not so much that students don't participate as that participation is massively more variable and inconsistent than it would be in a classroom. Part of this, I think, is that online interaction is evidence-impoverished; everyone has less information about the reactions of everyone else than they would in person, so it's easier to miss nuances and to miss key points, and, more than that, it is more difficult for most people (including myself) to communicate, since there is less feedback in doing so. I also have sympathy for the 'there's no chalkboard' answer; there are workarounds, but there is really no substitute for having something you can easily write and diagram on, which physically stays visible the entire time, no matter what else you are showing, which you can point to as needed for emphasis and clarification.

(15) If you were to give advice to someone who was about to teach their first online philosophy class, what would it be? I would say that they should definitely incorporate interactive components, have scheduled meetings one-on-one with students (even just one during the term, I find, does an immense amount of good), and be flexible. As for the actual teaching, I am a big believer at all times in the position that the teacher should teach in the way they can teach; that is to say, except in matters of explicitly required policies, you should just do what makes it possible for you, yourself, to teach. However, one of the common answers -- require videos on during class -- I think identifies a common problem, which is trying rigidly to press teaching one medium into the mold of teaching in another medium. There are just going to be differences between in-person and synchronous online, and one of them is that you're going to have to have a more flexible understanding of what counts as paying attention in class. There will certainly be more distractions; the lack of personal presence changes how attention works; and you will need to adjust to that. Really, I think the best way to think of this kind of situation is as more like a call-in program (one in which, of course, you can call them, as well). One of the things I decided to do early on was try to handle things in such a way that it might still work if the students have to keeping an eye on kids or cooking dinner or some other such thing while class is going on. (As far as I can tell, anything like this is in fact rare -- most students make an effort to shed anything that could distract them -- but also sometimes unavoidable.) The obsession with seeing students is, I think, usually counterproductive -- although of course, there are many different particular kinds of activities and situations in which it would in fact make sense to require that videos be on.

But I think there's also a general tendency to focus on peripheral matters; there are better or worse ways to arrange your LMS or your recordings, or breakout groups, or what have you, but I think people often put far too great an emphasis on these things. This is a crutch. In reality, there's the teaching, there's the interaction with the students, and everything else is just one of a million ways you could do things. Losing sight of this is not exclusive to online teaching. The thing nobody wants to admit is that nobody knows how to teach. How could you? All the success of teaching lies entirely in what the student does with it. You can have methods and technologies up to your ears and it is all, at best, a convenience, a way of reducing the time and effort; none of it is actually the teaching. That just happens. Everything else is just there to set things up in a way that you think makes its happening more likely -- and that is a lot of guesswork and hard knocks.

Poem a Day 7

Books on Stairs 

The books are laid in stacks upon the stairs;
each step has two tall piles, both left and right,
They seem to multiply as they lie there;
perhaps they do from secret trysts at night.

Prince, I shall beat you with my knuckles bare,
though you be born of flame and endless might,
because you tempt me with more books and dare
to multiply them all before each dawning light.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Poem a Day 6


The deep night looms,
soft though gloomy;
no doom awaits.

The stars are bright,
the world lighting
with white silver.

I look for you;
night is brewing
our due meeting.

Lay your head down,
watch the town lights
and crown my heart.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Music on My Mind

Eric Gillette, "Immigrant Song". A Led Zeppelin cover, of course, one which Robert Plant wrote after the band did a concert in Iceland; since I'm reading sagas, it seems an appropriate time to press play on this informal Scandinavian anthem. I like the guitar on this cover.

Poem a Day 5

The Road to Emmaus

You see, this is faith, to be walking a long road,
dust on your feet and heavy the load
of grief on your heart, the burden of death
of a friend, and the prick of a goad

in your soul, but puzzled by word
that you have recently heard
of strange happenings done and seen,
talking it over with a fellow and a third,

when the third man says, "Do you not see
that this is as the course of things should be?
Why are you surprised when you were already told
with already certain guarantee?"

Then he walks you through what you knew,
each clear claim and each subtle clue,
and your heart is lightened, amazed,
and you see the world as if it were new.

But the best is next, for all along,
he was right beside you, and like a gong
the truth goes off in your unprepared head
like a sudden exposure to angel-song.

By rumor you had heard of strange sights
while all along, through the dull, dusty day,
the strangest thing walked with you, going your way.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Unreal in Sentiments and Crude in Judgments

We grow up from boyhood; our minds open; we go into the world; we hear what men say, or read what they put in print; and thus a profusion of matters of all kinds is discharged upon us. Some sort of an idea we have of most of them, from hearing what others say; but it is a very vague idea, probably a very mistaken idea. Young people, especially, because they are young, colour the assemblage of persons and things which they encounter with the freshness and grace of their own springtide, look for all good from the reflection of their own hopefulness, and worship what they have created. Men of ambition, again, look upon the world as a theatre for fame and glory, and make it that magnificent scene of high enterprise and august recompence which Pindar or Cicero has delineated. Poets, too, after their wont, put their ideal interpretation upon all things, material as well as moral, and substitute the noble for the true. Here are various obvious instances, suggestive of the discipline which is imperative, if the mind is to grasp things as they are, and to discriminate substances from shadows. For I am not concerned merely with youth, ambition, or poetry, but with our mental condition generally. It is the fault of all of us, till we have duly practised our minds, to be unreal in our sentiments and crude in our judgments, and to be carried off by fancies, instead of being at the trouble of acquiring sound knowledge.

In consequence, when we hear opinions put forth on any new subject, we have no principle to guide us in balancing them; we do not know what to make of them; we turn them to and fro, and over, and back again, as if to pronounce upon them, if we could, but with no means of pronouncing. It is the same when we attempt to speak upon them: we make some random venture; or we take up the opinion of some one else, which strikes our fancy; or perhaps, with the vaguest enunciation possible of any opinion at all, we are satisfied with ourselves if we are merely able to throw off some rounded sentences, to make some pointed remarks on some other subject, or to introduce some figure of speech, or flowers of rhetoric, which, instead of being the vehicle, are the mere substitute of meaning. We wish to take a part in politics, and then nothing is open to us but to follow some person, or some party, and to learn the commonplaces and the watchwords which belong to it....

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, Part 2, "Discipline of Mind"

Poem a Day 4


The ruins were falling into the dusty ground;
the sun was dipping low on hill that knew no age.
Their story I knew not, an old palimpsest page
scrubbed dry, with its letters nevermore to be found.

Old maps had shown their place, but not even a name
remained of their old pride; all memory was gone.
Centuries they had seen in which dawn followed dawn,
every night like the next and every day the same.

Yet here the stones remain; they resist their long death,
and they shall be standing when my corpse is interred.
I have no stable stone, only my woven word:
written, a spot of ink; spoken, a puff of breath.

But though I one day die, words crumble slower still,
and you may read this verse like ruins on a hill.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Pain's Biological Function

 Laurenz Casser has an interesting article on the function of pain, which argues that a common view of the biological function of pain, that it exists to inform the organism about damage to the body, is wrong. It's an interesting idea, and nice to have a clear, clean argument about it, even though I think the argument fails completely.

There are quite a few different accounts of biological functions, but they primarily tend to fall into two broad schools, the aetiological (or etiological, if you're American) and the consequentialist (or physiological, as it is also sometimes called). On the aetiological view, to attribute a function to a biological organ or element is to identify a general feature of its overall natural history; on the consequentialist view, to attribute a function to a biological organ or element is to identify a role it currently normally plays in the organism. Or to put it in other words, on the aetiological view, a function is what an organ has historically been selected for by the evolutionary processes, and on the consequentialist view, a function is what currently contributes to the organism in a non-freak-accident way. It's perhaps worth nothing, since it is sometimes forgotten, that in both ways there is a difference between 'a function' and 'the function'. For instance, it's possible that a function of the heart is to make thumping noises -- all it takes is for there to be (on the aetiological view) a history to the heart that makes it so that noise-making contributed to its existence in organisms today by increasing the likelihood of surviving and reproducing or (on the consequentialist view) a role it normally plays in the health and reproduction of the organism today. But even if this were true, we would generally not say that this is the function of the heart, as opposed to circulating blood, because neither of these views requires that all functions are equally central -- that will just depend on the history it has or the role it plays.

Casser's strategy is to argue that neither the aetiological nor the consequentialist approach can adequately deliver an account in which pain's function is to inform of bodily damage. The argument on the consequentialist side looks at the pain modulation system -- i.e., the aspects of organismic function that reduce sensitivity to pain. The claim is that this creates a challenge to the consequentialist that has not been answered: to explain "why a system would purposefully prevent system-relevant information from transmission if it is the system’s function to perform such very transmissions." I confess I don't understand what this is supposed to mean. Casser hasn't established that the system is "purposefully" preventing system-relevant information from transmission, and on the consequentialist view this can't in fact be established until you know how the system's doing this is contributes to the health and reproduction of the organism. On the consequentialist view, there may in fact be no 'why'; this might be an inefficiency or a functional defect rather than a function. And if we do identify a role it plays in the organism's health and reproduction -- Casser mentions in passing the possibility that it may facilitate escape from damaging situations -- then we already have our answer: that is why. The consequentialist is not committed to organisms having a perfectly consistent design, in the sense that organs never work at cross-purposes, even in the normal operation of the organism, and even with themselves. Thus it's entirely possible that the actual pain-giving part serves to inform and that the pain modulation serves to prevent an effect of informing, and that there is a range of situations in which the one is foiling the other; there is no contradiction in this, as long as the two don't balance each other out. But it's not clear that there even need be a cross-purposes here; if System A has a function F and Subsystem B has an opposing function X, the natural hypothesis is that System A's function is F except insofar as some effect of F needs opposition (and, of course, A may fulfill this qualified function more or less badly in a given case). It's unclear why this is not supposed to be enough; Casser's explanation at this point becomes almost wholly metaphorical: the system is "purposefully" not informing, we are considering whether pain is "meant" to have that function, "the pain system isn't primarily interested in informing". Casser does note that consequentialists who have even considered the pain modulation system seem to regard it as irrelevant, but prima facie, the consequentialists seem to be right: it just doesn't seem to be relevant to whether in fact pain has a non-accidental role in which it contributes to the health and reproduction of organisms today.

On the aetiological side, Casser wants to argue that there is no biological evidence that pain has historically been selected to have the function of informing of bodily damage. Casser goes so far as to try to argue that there couldn't be such evidence:

One issue is that one would have to consider the evolutionary pressures at the time pain originated – but when did pain originate? What is the phylogenetic tree one could draw which maps back to the first organisms to feel pain? How would we find out? The other issue is a non-trivial problem of defining pain as a trait we could trace. Is pain simply a phenomenological episode, a hurting experience? Is pain the nociceptive system and relevant brain regions including all relevant subsystems? Is it both? How would we decide what the evolutionary relevant unit is? If one wants to champion AET, one better have some good responses to these questions.

However, this argument makes no sense, because none of these are particularly relevant to the question of gathering evidence. We don't need to know 'when' pain originated; the aetiologist is not committed to there being a particular moment when pain got its function. (This is a common error by critics of such accounts.)  The aetiologist is only committed to there being at some point a sufficient stretch of history such that pain's doing a certain kind of thing could affect survival and reproduction enough that that action through that period is a reason for its being common in the population now. It's easy to think of the aetiologist as concerned about the past and the consequentialist as concerned about the present, and in a sense it is true; but, if the consequentialist is interested in the current organism, the aetiologist is equally concerned with the current population (they ask, "Why is this common in the population?"). Aetiologists don't need a time machine to gather their evidence; they just need evidence for what actually spreads or maintains the trait in the population. And contrary to Casser's claim, we do have quite common biological evidence that damage-information is a candidate explanation here; for instance, we know that organisms that lose the ability to feel pain are at massively greater risk of fatal infection from bodily damage. That's how leprosy kills, for instance; the disease itself is not fatal, but lepers in advanced stages don't catch wounds as quickly in ways that are very detrimental to their survival. They might put their hand in a fire without realizing that they've done so until they smell themselves burning. They may cut themselves and never know it, and indeed what usually happens is that lepers, subject to normal wear-and-tear such as we all face, end up with cumulating wounds that are infected by gangrene and similar infections. We see that here is direct evidence that not having the ability to feel pain in cases of bodily damage contributes to dying -- and thus we have evidence that having the ability to feel pain increases the chances of organisms' survival in environments in which bodily damage occurs. As it happens, if we ask what kinds of environments are they in which bodily damage occurs, the answer is 'all of them'. So while the precise historical details are worth studying (e.g., so that we can refine our views), they are less relevant here than you might at first think, because the features that are being discussed (pain, bodily damage) are quite common for a very large variety of organisms and environments. What it all comes down to are the following three questions:

(1) Do we have reason to think that pain-feeling has been in organisms for a long time? The answer to this question is, 'Yes'; the physiologies have not changed so radically that we would have reason to think otherwise.

(2) Do we have reason to think that bodily damage is common in environments in which the relevant populations have been through their history? The answer is, 'Yes', because bodily damage is an immensely common feature of the relations between organisms and almost any environment.

(3) Do we have reason to think that pain-feeling changes operation and behavior with respect to bodily damage in ways that facilitate survival and reproduction in a way sufficiently identifiable that it could spread and be maintained in a population? This is a much trickier question in many ways, but we do have evidence: we know that pain is sometimes associated with bodily damage, and there are situations in which the relevant systems are damaged, and we know that these greatly increase the chances of death through fatal infection, due to failures to take corrective action to bodily damage.

This is surely enough to establish the claim as having some scientific plausibility, not merely armchair plausibility. It is, admittedly, not a proof. It could be that the problems in the case of leprosy and similar things are due in part to something else, which, if it weren't involved in those particular cases, would change the result (e.g., perhaps it's really damage to the sense of touch, not to the sense of pain in particular, that is the real culprit); it could be that we might discover that the effect is easily swamped, so that overall pain in fact has no real statistical influence on survival and reproduction, even if it seems to, or even actually does, in some marginal cases; it could be that we discover that actually the association of pain with bodily damage is generally after-the-fact, so that except in rare cases it is discovering the bodily damage that leads to the pain, rather than vice versa. If the argument were merely that these need to be considered, then of course they should; we need at least to check to get our evidences in proper order. But we do, contrary to Casser, have some evidence for (3), the evidence for the alternatives at present runs from weak to nonexistent, and the damage-information view of pain has become more likely, rather than less, over time, because of these points. It all could be wrong, to be sure, but that would be a matter of actual experimental and observational evidence, not abstract philosophical considerations about whether we even could have such evidence -- we already do have such evidence, however limited and even however misleading it might turn out to be.

Poem a Day 3

The Thunder Rumbles

The thunder rumbles; time is slow,
and I am reading in my room.
Through wondrous lands my journeys go.

The thunder rumbles, rivers flow,
but I the ancient deserts know,
the snowy waste, the cavern gloom.

The thunder rumbles, but words will show
the blue-sky sun on laughing bloom.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Pillar of the Church

 Today is the feast of St. Athanasius the Great, Patriarch of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church, although, of course, liturgically Sunday takes precedence. From his Against the Heathen, Part III, section 42:

The holy Word of the Father, then, almighty and all-perfect, uniting with the universe and having everywhere unfolded His own powers, and having illumined all, both things seen and things invisible, holds them together and binds them to Himself, having left nothing void of His own power, but on the contrary quickening and sustaining all things everywhere, each severally and all collectively; while He mingles in one the principles of all sensible existence, heat namely and cold and wet and dry, and causes them not to conflict, but to make up one concordant harmony. By reason of Him and His power, fire does not fight with cold nor wet with dry, but principles mutually opposed, as if friendly and brotherly combine together, and give life to the things we see, and form the principles by which bodies exist. Obeying Him, even God the Word, things on earth have life and things in the heaven have their order. By reason of Him all the sea, and the great ocean, move within their proper bounds, while, as we said above, the dry land grows grasses and is clothed with all manner of diverse plants. And, not to spend time in the enumeration of particulars, where the truth is obvious, there is nothing that is and takes place but has been made and stands by Him and through Him, as also the Divine says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made.

Poem a Day 2


In Ilion I went my way.
My face was cold from bitter wind;
the air was tanged with blood of men,
the rust of life, the flame of myth,
in which were blazing handsome youths,
so strong, so dead, though yet so young.
The fire was painting their bodies red
with liquid fury; its cousin devoured both hall and road.
A village with well-built wall
where god-descended women wept,
its mud-hut palaces and fanes
had known the world's most haunting face;
yes, in this proud but little town
had lived the matchless for a time,
but greater yet was the prince born first
who by his splendid eye held fast
a land besieged; what merit or worth
has ever been like him in all the world?
The night never seems to end its rule;
their shades will never again know brilliant ray;
they look up at us (their eyes are glazed),
up at us who still on earthen roads go.
In Ilion I went my way,
and Ilion was the world.