Saturday, September 30, 2023

James A. Michener, Journey


Opening Passage: 

When on 17 July 1897 the steamship Portland docked at Seattle, bringing belated news and hard evidence that an enormously rich strike of gold had been made the summer before along the Klondike River on the extreme western border of Canada, the world was startled by a felicitous sentence scribbled in haste by an excited reporter who visited the ship. Instead of saying that the miners had reached Seattle with "a huge amount of gold" or "a treasure-trove of gold," he wrote words that became immortal: "At 3 o'clock this morning the Steamer Portland from St. Michael for Seattle, passed up the Sound with more than a ton of solid gold aboard." (p. 5)

Summary: As news about the discovery of gold in the Yukon Territory spreads through the world, Lord Evelyn Luton, youngest son of the Marquess of Deal, all-around athlete and veteran of several expeditions across the British Empire, conceives of a plan to cross Canada and reach the Klondike River and its gold fields without ever leaving Canada. Going with him will be his nephew Philip, the son of his older sister; Harry Carpenter, a long-time veteran of expeditions, who is at thirty-seven the oldest and most experienced member of the expedition; Trevor Blythe, a close friend of Philip's; and Timothy Fogarty, a gamekeeper from one of Luton's estates in Northern Ireland. In many ways they represent the full capability of the British Empire at its height.

From the beginning, the fundamental obstacle the expedition faces, one that it never completely overcomes, is an obstacle of information. The last part of the expedition, in Western Canada, was sparsely populated and not commonly traveled, at least before the gold rush, and, as the expedition requires crossing the Rocky Mountains, a certain amount of precision was needed for any planning. They draw on traveler's journals and news reports, as best they can, but it is simply not enough. For one thing, times are changing, and they are not prepared for the sheer number of people traveling west in the hope of getting rich; practically as soon as they reach Canada, they are competing for transportation and resources with everyone else. This is not a complete problem; Luton's wealth and title both carry considerable weight in Canada. But more serious than this is that when they reach Edmonton, they find that almost everything they had relied upon from the news reports was little more than manufactured ad copy by people who had never set foot outside Edmonton. At that point, they have to sort through, on the fly, information of extremely varying quality.

A more serious problem for the expedition, however, arises from Luton's insistence on not leaving the borders of the British Empire. Between Edmonton in Alberta and Dawson in Yukon one finds the very rugged Rockies. There is no possible straight path, and all of the paths that were most tried-and-true required swinging south and going through Alaska. Since Luton refuses to do that, the only possible routes are north, up toward the Arctic Circle, a long way around through difficult and hard to cover country. It's not complete untraversable -- the rivers flowing north, when not iced over, are excellent and navigable, and Fort Norman, near Great Bear Lake on the great Mackenzie River, serves as an outpost about two-thirds of the way through the journey. It's difficult, but entirely possible, and in fact the expedition does reasonably well, although it turns out that they make a near-fatal mistake in choosing their winter camping site. But the thing of it is, you have to cross the Rockies somewhere. There are only a few places, and none of them are easy. Against the advice of several others, who recommend either going up the Gravel River and then by portage moving to the Hess and the Stewart (which Luton rejects because he has it in his head that they need to use the Mackenzie), or else leaving the Mackenzie at the Rat then by portage taking the Bell then by portage again taking the Porcupine to Fort Yukon then the Yukon River (which Luton rejects because it goes through Alaska), they end up taking a route that almost nobody ever goes, a route that forces them to camp through yet another winter.

The dangers of such a trip are many. There is the cold, of course; there is the instability and unpredictability of the rivers when they thaw; there are the many overhanging branches that can sweep a person of the boat if they are not wary; there is the difficulty of hunting game through a vast and scraggly country; there is the inevitable difficulty of stretching supplies long enough. An even more serious danger is the deadly danger of scurvy. By this time, they know exactly how to prevent and treat scurvy, due to the voyages of Captain Cook, but it is one thing to know how and another thing entirely to do it in an unyielding arctic territory with dwindling supplies. Another serious danger for the unwary is that the last stretch of the journey goes through mosquito country, by which I do not mean that it has some mosquitoes, but that it goes through marshy land where every pond surface is covered with mosquito larvae and the mosquitoes swarm in such vast numbers and so aggressively that they can kill or drive mad what they attack. The scurvy and the mosquitoes vie for the most gruesome and unpleasant of the challenges they face. 

Given all this, it is inevitable that the journey have its shares of disaster. Not everyone will survive it. Michener does a very good job of balancing the story. This is a story of admirable, if flawed, people, facing extraordinary challenges with ingenuity and indomitable will that can achieve what might have seemed impossible; and it is also a story of pride and hubris, and the catastrophe that they inevitably bring. In many ways it reminded me of Jules Verne's travel stories, which often have a similar balance (and would often have had a more tragic ending if Verne's publisher had had less of a say).

Favorite Passage:

When it came time for Carpenter to conduct his first evening session, he surprised the group by announcing that on his nights he would read aloud the entire novel Great Expectations, which a tutor had told him was one of the best-constructed of all the English novels, and in time the others looked forward to his sessions, especially when the real cold set in and the river fairly cracked from the ice it was moving about.

They had become involved because this novel was composed of masterful visual images: the dramatic appearance of the convict in the churchyard, Miss Havisham and her moldering wedding cake, Pip's boxing lesson, the wonderful scenes of London. "This is," said Harry, "a damned fine novel for a cabin near the Arctic Circle." (p. 74)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


James A. Michener, Journey: A Novel, The Dial Press (New York: 2015).

The Thunderer

 Today is the feast of St. Eusebius Euphronius Hieronymus, more commonly known as St. Jerome of Stridon, Doctor of the Church. From his work, Against Jovinianus (Book II, section 34), in which he is arguing (among other things) against the notion that there are no gradations in the Church (note, since it might not be immediately obvious, that the last sentence is sarcastic):

The whole account of the land of Judah and of the tribes is typical of the church in heaven. Let us read Joshua the Son of Nun, or the concluding portions of Ezekiel, and we shall see that the historical division of the land as related by the one finds a counterpart in the spiritual and heavenly promises of the other. What is the meaning of the seven and eight steps in the description of the temple? Or again, what significance attaches to the fact that in the Psalter, after being taught the mystic alphabet by the one hundred and eighteenth psalm we arrive by fifteen steps at the point where we can sing: Behold, now bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord: ye who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. Why did two tribes and a half dwell on the other side of Jordan, a district abounding in cattle, while the remaining nine tribes and a half either drove out the old inhabitants from their possessions, or dwelt with them? Why did the tribe of Levi receive no portion in the land, but have the Lord for their portion? And how is it that of the priests and Levites, themselves, the high priest alone entered the Holy of Holies where were the cherubim and the mercy-seat? Why did the other priests wear linen raiment only, and not have their clothing of wrought gold, blue, scarlet, purple, and fine cloth? The priests and Levites of the lower order took care of the oxen and wagons: those of the higher order carried the ark of the Lord on their shoulders. If you do away with the gradations of the tabernacle, the temple, the Church, if, to use a common military phrase, all upon the right hand are to be up to the same standard, bishops are to no purpose, priests in vain, deacons useless. Why do virgins persevere? widows toil? Why do married women practise continence? Let us all sin, and when once we have repented, we shall be on the same footing as the apostles.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Links of Note

 * One of the world's most famous trees, the Sycamore Gap Tree growing near Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland National Park, was recently cut down by a vandal in the middle of the night. It was believed to be about three hundred years old. British police are investigating who might have done it and the National Trust is investigating whether the stump is healthy enough to salvage in order to regrow a tree.

* Colin Guthrie King, False ἔvδοξα and fallacious argumentation (PDF)

* Frederick D. Aquino & Logan Paul Gage, Newman and Quasi-Fideism: A Reply to Pritchard (PDF)

* John Farrell reviews Laurence Moran's What's in Your Genome?, at "Commonweal"

* Andrew Peet, Deciding What We Mean (PDF), on stipulation

* Christopher Hauser, Aquinas on Persons, Psychological Subjects, and the Coherence of the Incarnation (PDF)

* Julian Hess, Mark Twain's Innovative Notes, at "Noted", on Mark Twain's most successful book during his lifetime -- his self-adhesive scrapbook -- as well as other Twain innovations on note-taking.

* Peter John Hartman, Durand of St.-Pourçain’s Moderate Reductionism about Hylomorphic Composites (PDF)

* The Feminist Philosophy Archive Directory

* Manuel Fasko, ‘The compound mass we term SELF’ – Mary Shepherd on selfhood and the difference between mind and self (PDF)

* Julia Hejduk, Vergil's secret message, at ""

* Dhananjay Jagannathan, A Defense of Aristotelian Justice (PDF)

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Dikaion de Psychai en Cheiri Theou

 The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no tribulation will touch them. They seemed to the eyes of the imprudent to die, and their exit was believed evil, and their going away from us to be shattering; but they are in peace. And though they are to human eyes punished, still their hope is full of immortality, and having been slightly disciplined, they are greatly benefited, because God assayed them and found them worthy for himself. He tested them like gold in the furnace and he received them as a burnt offering. And in the time of their examination, they shall shine and run across like sparks on a reed. They shall judge the nations and rule the people, and their Lord will reign for always. Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and those who are faithful in love will continue with him, for grace and mercy are to his holy ones and he examines his chosen. But the impious shall suffer punishment according to their own thought, those who have neglected the just and departed from the Lord. For whoever despises wisdom and discipline suffers hardship, and their hope is empty, and their deeds are pointless, Their women are witless and their children are wicked, their stock is cursed. For blessed is the barren one who is pure, who has not known the bed of transgression, who shall bear fruit in the examination of souls, and the eunuch who has done no lawlessness with his hands, nor imagined wickedness against the Lord, for he is given the chosen gift of faith and an inheritance in the temple of the Lord more to his mind. For the fruit of good labor is glorious and the root of prudence is unfailing. The children of adulteries shall be unfulfilled and the seed of the transgressive bed shall vanish, for if they happen to live long, they shall be accounted as nothing, and their old age shall be honorless, and if they end quickly, they shall have no hope, not even in the day of discernment. For unbearable is the end of the unjust generation.

[Wisdom 3:1-19, my very rough translation.I have translated episkope and like words by words indicating 'examination', which seems to fit best; literally, it means supervision or oversight. The last several sentences are heavy with different telos-related words, which can mean the ending or fufillment or completion of something. I find the emphasis on one's own thought interesting: the difference between the end of the just and of the unjust is that the unjust are punished even by their own lights, whereas the just are not. While some of the last part is obscure, I'm fairly sure the point is less a claim about the actual progeny of adulterers and more a comment that even the apparent blessings of the unjust (of which wife and children and descendants are an especially great kind) will not really be blessings -- however the unjust may seem to flourish, they are not in fact doing so. It's unsurprising, I think, that parts of this passage are often read in commemorations of martyrs, who end badly in the eyes of the world but have great reward, in contrast to many who seem to do well but in reality are building toward disaster.]

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Pointing the Path that Leads His Journey Right

The Moon
by John Clare

How sweet the Moon extends her cheering ray
To damp the terrors of the darksome night,
Guiding the lonely traveller on his way,
 Pointing the path that leads his journey right.
Hail! welcome! blessing! to thy silver light,
That charms dull night, and makes its horrors gay.
So shines the Gospel to the Christian's soul;
So by its light and inspiration given,
 He (spite of sin and Satan's black control)
Through all obstructions steers his course to heaven.
So did the Saviour his design pursue,
 That we, unworthy sinners, might be bless'd;
 So suffer'd death, its terrors to subdue,
 And made the grave a wish'd-for place of rest.

The Liturgical Commonwealth

 Let's start with a basic picture of human society, which I think is at least approximately true. Human beings are both sympathetic and rational, and for both reasons tend to combine their efforts in with others. In some of these interactions, the people involved are interacting in order to have some good that they have in common with others through the interaction. This common good is literally common; it is not a distributed good, divided among the people interacting, and it is not a collective good, distinct from the good of each. It is a good held in common, each individual's good and yet not divided among them. Systems of such interactions are called 'communities' after this good shared in common. In rational interactions with common good, we have rational principles governing how the common good is to be handled in the interactions; these are obligations and norms. When a community has in itself all that is required for the common good it has as a community, it is a complete society. The explicit obligations and norms of a complete society, when made explicit by the actions of all of the members of the community, or made explicit by those whom the members of the community treat as having the relevant authority, are called laws.

Let's also consider the nature of the Church, with an account of its origin that I am greatly simplifying but that I think is also at least approximately true. The Church by its nature does not arise out of a set of responses of its individual members; it is not the Jesus fandom. It is an institution, in the very literal sense that it was instituted by Christ and the early disciples operating on behalf of Christ. Even in the life of Christ it had rites and structured practices (baptism, preaching, healing missions) formed under his direction. It likewise had roles that were at least semi-formal and had some specific responsibilities -- the book of Acts lists the roles of authority in the Church as the Eleven (i.e., the Twelve Apostles minus Judas), the Brothers of the Lord, the Women, and Mary the Mother of the Lord. The last of course is a sui generis role; the Apostles seem to have been the primary authority, with the Brothers of the Lord primarily concerned with the role of Christians in Temple worship and the Women primarily concerned with administering the material needs of the Church, although our knowledge of the role of the latter two is very hazy and limited, because only the Apostles had a role that made it possible for them to provide a stable organization for the Church as a whole, and because the Brothers of the Lord did not survive much beyond the destruction of the Temple and the Women, whose original unity seems to have been that they had been wealthy women personally healed or exorcised by Jesus who were returning the favor by providing money and other help to Jesus and his disciples, seem to have broken up into various diverse practices and traditions.  The Apostles in organizing the Church established what seems to have been a fairly wide variety of different roles, of which the role of Supervisor (or 'bishop', to use the English modification of the Greek word for 'supervisor') was particularly important. The very early Church, however, seems to have been quite flexible in terms of the offices used, and one reason the role of Supervisor became dominant is that it literally involved the Apostles delegating some of their own supervisory functions, which could be said of no other role. The Church is organized under a particular commission, part of its very institutional structure: to go into all the world, baptizing and making disciples; it thus has both a sacramental and doctrinal aspect to it.

Therefore the Church is a community to which you are called, into which you are initiatiated, and within which you are part of an organization. Many of these features are not made by those who are members but received by them as part of the process of tradition, vocation, initiation, and participation. The Church pre-exists any of its members and is received by its members as involving common good that is higher than any human good, and part of that common good is the community itself. The Church itself is also a complete society, since it has everything in itself that its common good requires.

So far, so good; I am simplifiying, but this is in its broad outlines a fairly standard kind of ecclesiology. However, I think there is another aspect that gets forgotten. The Church as outlined above is a received society rather than a formed society; that is, its members receive the common good that makes it a community, including its sacramental and doctrinal hierarchy, whose existence depends on its institution from Christ and the Apostles rather than the members themselves. But when human beings have a common good, they form communities, and therefore the members of the Church, sharing the common good they receive from divine institution, form a society that depends on its members. This aspect of the Church I call the 'liturgical commonwealth'. It forms within the Church as part of the Church, and includes all of the members of the Church. The Church is not reducible to the liturgical commonwealth (because it is not reducible to the kind of society it is insofar as it depends on its members), but the Church is the liturgical commonwealth. 

The common good of the liturgical commonwealth includes all of the doctrine and the sacraments of the Church, and thus all of the hierarchy which supervises the doctrine and the sacraments. However, as with every other complete society, the liturgical commonwealth as such has authority over itself to protect that common good, and this is a power that belongs to the whole people who are part of it. Bishops have supervisory power over doctrine and sacraments, including the power of canon and liturgical law, but the whole community can by custom and various means of organization establish norms and even laws that are distinct from this.

This adds a layer of complication to ecclesiology -- the Church has to be considered both insofar as it is a received hierarchy and insofar as it is formed by its members -- but it also, I think, explains a great many things. There are many powers bishops and priests have historically had that are not strictly required by their doctrinal and sacramental mission; they are powers that have been given by the communities they served, because the community needed certain functions to be fulfilled and it was more convenient to attach it to the already-received episcopal or priestly office than to invent a new office. Likewise, there have been many roles that are distinct from the received hierarchy that have nonetheless played an important role in the Church. Monks and nuns and the like are an obvious case; they are now more or less formally integrated into what we usually think of as the received hierarchy, but this is actually a relatively new thing, something that took many centuries. All of these positions are things that were not necessarily done as an extension of episcopal organization, and yet developed a considerable amount of authority and influence just by the custom of the people. That is, the roles were generally created by the people as part of their way of upholding the common good, and then the bishops, exercising their supervisory power, organized those roles that the people had developed. (There are particular kinds of monastic that were invented by bishops, but in those cases the bishops were generally using a pre-existing role, developed by the people, as a model that they then adapted.) Other roles that have certainly been important for the Church but which were formed by the people rather than received as part of the instituted common good, are Christian kingship and Christian knighthood. Recognizing that the Church is a liturgical commonwealth clarifies the functions of such roles within the whole order of the Church.

In English we often call the hierarchy-constituting sacrament, 'holy orders'. But the original name for it was just Order. And the 'order' in the sacrament of Order was not a specialized term. Every society whatsoever has order, in the same general sense that 'order' was applied to the sacrament of Order; every society has to ordain (i.e., set in order) things for its common good. The Church has an instituted sacramental order, but as a liturgical commonwealth, it also has the same general sort of social order that human societies tend to have. And just as we have 'holy orders', that is, sacramental components of the sacramental order, we also have what might be called 'social orders', that is, social components of the social order. They are not equal, because the sacramental order is itself part of the common good that the social order is formed to protect and preserve, and because the supervisory powers of bishops are conferred sacramentally but are both sacramental and social in scope. (Christian marriage, like the clergy, also exists in both orders, and plays an important role in structuring the liturgical commonwealth.) But they are distinguishable. We can see this even in the clergy; the clergy are primarily structured by the sacramental orders (deacon, priest, bishop), but there are clearly distinctions among clergy that are social-order distinctions (monsignor, cardinal). But there are social orders in the Church that we primarily associate with the laity as well; again, Christian kings and Christian knights are an example. Some, like Christian kings and Christian knights, have been explicitly given a kind of sacramental recognition for their role in upholding the common good of the Church; that is to say, there are sacramentalia (sacramentals) associated with them, in the form of various blessings and Christian rites that at various times and places the Church has recognized. But the lay social orders themselves develop as part of the laity just living their lives in the Church, not because of these sacramental recognitions. Thus recognizing that the Church is also a liturgical commonwealth can serve to clarify the role of the laity in the Church, since the laity often participate in the actual work of the Church through social orders and roles that could, if necessary, be formalized as social orders, and because the laity play a major role in shaping the customs and norms of the liturgical commonwealth.

The idea is that the Church is therefore a kind of double society, the society into which we are called and which we form in light of the society into which we are called. Thinking in this way

(1) provides a way of clarifying a number of ecclesiological questions, like cultural and local powers of clergy, like the role of the laity in the Church, like the way in which the Church is both a divine and a human society, etc.;

(2) gives an ecclesiology that recognizes the priority of the sacramental and doctrinal order without reducing the Church to that;

(3) gives an ecclesiology that is flexible enough to account for the real importance of the customs of the people and Christian culture without reducing the Church to that.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Music on My Mind


The Hound + The Fox, "Return to Pooh Corner". Originally a Kenny Loggins song.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

En de Anthropos ek ton Pharisaion

 And there was a man of the Pharisees, Nikodemos his name, an Archon of the Judeans; he came to him at night, and said to him, Rabbi, we are aware that you have come from God, a teacher; because no one is able to make these signs that you make, if God were not with him.

Iesous responded and said to him, Amen, Amen, I say to you, if anyone is not born from above, he is not able to see God's realm.

Nikodemos says to him, How is a man able to be born, being old? He is not able to enter his mother's belly a second time and be born.

Iesous said to him, Amen, Amen, I say to you, if anyone is not born of water and Breath, he is not able to enter God's realm. What has been born of flesh, is flesh, and what has been born of the Breath is breath. Do not wonder that I said to you that y'all ought to be born from above. The breath breathes as it will and you hear its sound, but you are not aware of whence its comes and whither it departs; so are all who have been born of the Breath.

Nikodemos answered and said to him, How are these things able to happen?

Iesous answered and said to him, You are the teacher of Israel and do not know these things? Amen, Amen, I say to you, that that of which we are aware, we speak, and to that which we have seen, we testify, and our testimony y'all do not receive. If I have told y'all things on earth and y'all do not believe, how will y'all believe if I tell y'all things above the heavens? And no one has risen to heaven if not the one having come down from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moyses elevated the serpent in the wasteland, thus the Son of Man ought to be elevated, so that all who believe in him may possess perpetual life.

Thus God was so devoted to the world that he offered his only-born son, so that all who believe in him should not be annihilated but should possess perpetual life. For God did not send out his Son into the world to judge the world but that the world might be rescued through him. Who believes in him is not judged; who does not believe him has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the only-born Son of God. 

[John 3:1-18, my rough translation. There are several subtleties to the Greek here that are difficult to capture in translation. One interesting feature of this passage that is usually missed in English is that Jesus keeps switches back and forth between singular and plural 'you'; hence my use of 'y'all'. Another feature that is virtually impossible to convey in English is that Jesus originally says, 'If anyone is not born anothen'; anothen literally means 'from above', but can also mean 'anew'. From what Jesus goes on to say, it is clear that he intended 'from above' as the primary meaning (although perhaps not excluding 'anew'), but Nicodemus clearly interprets him as meaning 'anew' (as do many translations). Another tricky point is how to translate pneuma, which can mean spirit, breath, and wind; the passage also uses pneumatos, which is clearly a title. So I've picked 'breath' as the single translation that fits most easily with most of how it's used here, and then distinguished pneuma and pneumatos by capitalizing the latter. Monogene is tricky; it literally means something like 'single one from a given stock', so 'unique, one-of-a-kind'; but Jesus's repeated comments about birth, a related word, just prior to this do suggest that there is wordplay here again, in which Jesus is using the word in a way that highlights its relation to birth-words, thus 'only-begotten' or 'only-born', which arguably also fits better with the same word as used in John 1:14.

Nicodemus's title, archon, is often translated as 'ruler', which is very literal but not very enlightening. An archon would have been a member of the governing council of the local community; it was not itself a religious position, although it often overlaps with religious positions. Judeans were an ethnos in the ancient world, and as such were expected to be partly self-governing, so archon is here an official title for a community leader. Nicodemus's comment about 'signs' at the beginning fits with a continuing theme in the Gospel of John about signs that are not correctly interpreted. It is possible that this is why there is unusual wordplay running through the entire passage, in which Jesus is represented as using several words in ways that are slightly different from what one would expect: just as people not born of the Spirit do not understand what He was doing, so people not born of the Spirit do not understand what He was saying.]