Saturday, November 18, 2023

Augustine, Confessions


Opening Passage:

Great are you, Lord, and highly to be praised. Great is your power, and your wisdom beyond measure. And human beings want to praise you -- they who are just a portion of your creation, who carry around their mortality, who carry around the evidence of their own sin and the evidence that you resist the proud. And yet human beings, this portion of your creation, want to praise you. You rouse them to take delight in praising you: for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you. (p. 1)

Summary: The famous opening passage of the Confessions captures the structure of the work. It's a story about the journey from restlessness to rest, a journey that is structured by praise. This helps, I think, to understand the ways in which the book is not quite an autobiography; it is, rather, an exploration of the restlessness of the human spirit, in which Augustine uses his own life as an example. It begins, of course, with Augustine looking back to his birth and childhood. He discusses how as an infant he struggled to express his desires, and how as a student he struggled to learn what was most important. Both of these are just aspects of the restlessness of human life, always wanting something more and beyond, not merely from mere immaturity but, as becomes very clear when we grow older, we confuse the restful and the merely temporarily satisfactory. As a teenager, Augustine stole pears and then did not even eat them, merely throwing them away. The point of this story is not the pears; the point is the restlessness, the seeking for a satisfaction in the wrong way and in the wrong place. The same is true of Augustine's endless sexual temptations and indulgences. All of it is restlessness for something he could not yet enunciate even to himself.

In Book Three, he takes his first major steps toward the fulfillment of his journey, when reading Cicero's Hortensius, he is inspired by it to devote his life to philosophy and the search for wisdom. But the restlessness is still there; unimpressed by Scripture, he eventually falls in with the Manichaean movement, who claimed to provide deep insight into the nature of the world and our place within it. In Book Four, now a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage, he first dabbles in and then rejects astrology (which also claims to provide deep insight into the world and our place in it), and begins to work out his own Neoplatonic philosophy. But he is hampered at this time, although he did not fully realize the ways in which he was being hampered, by his perpetual attempt to fit God into his own understanding of the categories of the world. The Manichaeans, in the person of their greatest orator, Faustus, turn out to be a disappointment, and Augustine, ever restless, leaves his mother to further his career in Rome, in Book Five. Rome turns out to be an even bigger disappointment; it seems to symbolize for Augustine a sort of falling away from truth, as he begins to be tempted by Academic skepticism and its claims that we can never get closer to the truth than finding things that seem truthlike, and with his disgust at the intellectual dishonesty that pervades the students and thinkers in Rome. Still restless, he ends up in Milan, where the second major step of his journey occurs: he meets Ambrose, the first Christian who absolutely and undeniably impresses him.

With Book Six, we begin to learn the full significance of this turning point. Milan brings together a few of the most important people in Augustine's search for wisdom and happiness: his mother, Monnica; the bishop, Ambrose; and his students and friends, Alypius and Nebridius. Listening to Ambrose's public preaching, he begins to understand that some of his assumptions and opinions about Christian doctrine were incorrect, and Ambrose begins to give him reason to think that the Catholic Christian approach to life is better than that of the Manichaeans. Much of the restlessness of Augustine's life to this point was driven by ambition, and in Milan at the age of thirty, this collapses; he meets a drunken beggar who is happy and laughing, and he suddenly recognizes that, limited as this beggar's happiness may be, it is more genuine than anything that Augustine himself has. His search for happiness had been making him miserable. He talks this over with Alypius and Nebridius, particularly Alypius. 

Book Seven looks at this stage of Augustine's journey from the intellectual side, the puzzles that he had about God and the world, and the ways in which Platonism helped him to resolve some of these puzzles, albeit incompletely, and to lead him to the point at which he could fruitfully begin reading the Scriptures that he had previously dismissed. Book Eight looks at the same stage from the perspective of conversion, as Augustine hears about the many converts to Christianity and how their lives had changed because of it and, significantly, learns something about the conversion of the Platonist philosopher Marius Victorinus, which seems to bring home to him the genuine possibility of a Platonist like himself becoming Christian. At this point, of course, he hears a child in singsong saying, "Pick up and read", and, the conversion of St. Antony, whose conversion had involved reading a passage from the Gospel, he picks up the letters of St. Paul and reads. The passage he reads, from Romans 13, inspires him to convert.

In Book Nine, Augustine, Monnica, and his friends withdraw from Milan to a country estate to study and discuss and contemplate, in what had been Augustine's ideal for the philosophical life -- the opposite, in a sense, of what he had found in Rome. Augustine, Alypius, and Augustine's son Adeodatus all are baptized. Book Nine is in a sense about death; it does not go in any strict chronological order, but reflects in various ways about death -- both the sacramental death of baptismal conversion and physical death. There is a kind of thematic crescendo through the book as each death, symbolic or physical, adds another aspect to Augustine's understanding of dying to his old self, culminating in the pinnacle with the Vision at Ostia, in which Augustine and Monnica, while discussing heaven and the kind of interaction among the saints that will be found there, both share an experience that is a taste of that very thing, converse in heaven. Their discussion leads them up both to an experience of God as the Selfsame (a name of God that Augustine gets from the Latin translation of Psalm 4:9), a touch of what it is to seek wisdom in Wisdom itself. Monnica dies shortly after they have this glimpse at the rest at the end of the restless journey.

Book Ten brings us to Augustine's present as he is writing, and reflecting on what he is doing in writing these confessions for the praise of God, with the famous discussions of memory and anticipation. If we were reading the work merely as a biography, the shift between Book Nine and Book Ten would be jarring, but when we read the work as a reflection on human restlessness, it is the most natural thing in the world: having brought the narrative of his own restlessness up to his own time, more or less, Augustine now beginst to reflect on what this restlessness is. Book Ten gives us the subjective aspect of that restlessness, what aspects of human mind are involved in it, and Books Eleven and Twelve (Book Eleven in general and Book Twelve by looking specifically at the account of creation given in Genesis) give us the objective aspect of it, how this restlessness plays out in general in the world. The things of this world are not rest because they are not Selfsame; they are not adequate to themselves because they are made and therefore signify something higher than themselves. To try to satisfy oneself with worldly things is to try to satisfy oneself with things that are already telling you that they are not enough. 

But what is the rest to which this restlessness tends? Augustine, of course, although he has had a glimpse or two, has not reached it yet. He has spoken of how he reached the symbolic end in baptism, and reflected on the end of the journey itself and the nature of its restlessness. Thus the book ends the only way it could: Augustine attempts to work out what that rest involves by working out how this restlessness is changed by God's grace into rest in God. This he does by taking the account of creation he had worked out in Book Twelve, based on the beginning of Genesis, and uses it as a clue, a set of hints about what God might be doing in the re-creation of our souls through grace. He gives an allegorical reading of the days of creation as stages of our re-creation. So God manifested his light in Christ, and divided believers from unbelievers, just as he had made light exist and divided the firmament above from that below; he kindled the fires of the saints, just as he made the sun and moon and stars, and made sacraments and miracles and scriptural words spring forth; he gives order to the earthly aspect of ourselves and shapes us into his image, breathing his Spirit upon us and making us fruitful, thus to bring us to that for which our restless hearts long, the sabbath rest of God himself, which none can give but God. The book that began with restlessness can only end with the hope of rest.

Favorite Passage: There are many excellent passages, of course, but this one is always hard to beat:

And what is this? I asked the earth, and it said, "It is not I." And everything that is in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the depths and the creeping things with living souls, and they replied, "We are not your God; seek him above us." I asked the blowing winds, and all the air with its inhabitants said, "Anaximenes was wrong; I am not God." I asked the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars: "neither are we the God whom you are seeking," they said. And I said to all these things that surround the gateways of my flesh, "Tell me about my God -- the God who you are not -- tell me something about him." And they cried out with a loud voice, "He is the one who made us." My scrutiny of them posed the question; their beauty answered it. (p. 167)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Augustine, Confessions, Williams, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis: 2019).

Friday, November 17, 2023

Dashed Off XXXIII

This ends the notebook that was completed March 2023.

 The Synoptic Problem is like models of planetary motion; it is a tracing of the phenomena, which admit of different models. From the phenomena alone, some indications of varying probability can be had (e.g., simplicity), but only causal considerations could possibly render definitive judgment. Until then, any model can be epicycled into conformity with the data, especially given that some of that data admits of dispute in its interpretation.

Irenaeus in Adv. Haer. 3.3, on apostolic succession, is showing that the Church's tradition is manifest, not secret. (Note also his appeal to the Apostolic Fathers in particular, namely, Clement and Polycarp.) He goes on (3.4) to point out that besides the ancient apostolic churches, the barbarians are also witnesses, based on their traditions from the original preaching. The reason he was arguing this was that the heretics, when Scripture is used, retreat to tradition, and when the tradition of the Church is used, retreat to secret traditions of hidden mysteries. Having countered this retreat, he returns to Scripture (3.5). He then confirms this line of argument by arguing that there is no need or value in alternative gospels (3.11) and that it is false and useless to hold that only Paul had the right tradition (3.13), a way in which such alternatives were sometimes justified, and that on the other side it is false to hold that Paul was not an apostle (3.15), against possible objections by heretics.

In favor of LXX, Irenaeus in 3.21appeals not only to the legend of the seventy, but also to its conformity with apostolic quotations.

"With God there are simultaneously exhibited power, wisdom, and goodness." Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 4.38

Of the early leaders of the Church, the Mother of the Lord was of course unique; the Brothers of the Lord organized a community, but the community did not last much past the destruction of Jerusalem and ended with the last Brother of the Lord; the Women seem to have been organized such that they had no formal appointment, so they appear to have appointed no successors, although they have always had imitators; but the Apostles, tasked particularly with evangelism, appointed overseers operating under their authority, who succeeded them by continuing to operate in a limited way under their authority.

received sacred unity -> internal moral unification -> external juridical unification

The episcopal system is so widespread so early that it defies belief to think its basic form is not thoroughly apostolic, even if a number of its juridical features had not yet developed.

"In the history of each dogma, one may observe a gradual transition from variety to unity." Hilarion Troitsky

The Church may be said to preexist creation in its Head, who is the Word of God, and in its predestination.

God alone is a sacrifice wholly adequate to God, and God alone is a priest wholly adequate to offer such a sacrifice.

On Hume's account of the world, our knowledge of it is a set of basic models and epicycles.

Repentance is our mortality turned to a higher end.

Lk 10:16 and magisterium
2 Tim 2:2 and tradition

Error is always an imitation of the truth.

the charisma veritatis of the episcopate

Rome as the church within which all churches convene

"The Church does not view oral and written Tradition as absolutely separate and distinct from one another." Hilarion Troitsky

All works of mercy, properly done, are done in accordance with Scripture; all works of mercy, corporeal and spiritual alike, are figures of graces we may receive from Scripture; all works of mercy, properly done, better dispose us in how we read Scripture.

aridity & consolations in almsdeeds

intellect/reason qua synderesis and natural law as disposition to covenant

Dt 25:1, Is 53:11, and justification

the natural mysteries
(1) existence
(2) life
(3) reason
(4) motherhood
(5) fatherhood
(6) human solidarity
-- each of these has a kind of natural sacredness distinctive to itself; each of these is a potential subject of endless meditation.
-- in a sense, the mystery of fatherhood occurs within the mystery of motherhood, as a distinguishable aspect or extension of it.

The Protestant Reformation had the curious unintended result of making many, many roads to Rome.

condign vs congruous respectability

Sin cannot wane unless justice waxes.

Acquittal is a judicial act, pardon is an executive act, forensic imputation is a legislative act.

All imputation indicates a title and a transfer, resulting in a classification. Different kinds of title, different kinds of transfer, and different kinds of classification are possible.

A purely forensic justification can only solve a purely forensic problem.

Justification in a court of justice and justification in a court of mercy cannot be in every way the same.

"For anyone can observe in his own life how an idea previously held becomes more definite when expressed in words, and especially when written down." Hilarion Troitsky
"The doctrine of Tradition, formerly encountered in fragmentary comments and often merely in hints, was merely developed into a more or less complete system of thought."

(1) formal epsicopal authority, arising from the sacrament of order and appointment to office
(2) material episcopal authority, arising from custody of memory of saints and martyrs
(3) adjunct episcopal authority, arising from historical importance and influence
(4) synodal authority, arising from organization with other bishops.

Seven stages of repentance (Nicholas of Clairvaux)
(1) cognitio peccati
(2) penitentia
(3) dolor cordis
(4) confessionis
(5) satisfactio
(6) correctio operis
(7) perseverantia bonitatis

Properly done, ritual prevents us from giving too much salience to particular passions.

When we compare the NT with the third and fourth centuries, what we find is not the springing up of new church offices, but a bewildering array of offices, missions, and ministries, sometimes distinct and sometimes overlapping, that mostly becomes simplified through more consistent overallping with the office concerned with the central functions of every church, precisely because they were the central functions of every church. The offices that became most important are inevitably the offices most in demand and that can already do at least some of the work of other offices because of their local supervisory and organizational authority. Something like this is even recognized explicitly by the Didache (15:1-2).

In order to evaluate something by its fruits, you need to understand the causes that result in those fruits.

Solidarity cannot be built entirely on a shared opposition.

"Our Lord Jesus Christ came to earth to renew manking, whom He called to infinite moral perfection. Mankind sets out upon this path of moral perfection by rejecting his former life, altering his entire spiritual visage (metanoeo). In this respect those who set out on the path of Christian perfection become people set apart, separated out from the sphere of natural, sinful life." Hilarion Troitsky

All books are instrumental by nature, but some are instrumental specifically to the reading of other books. thus there is a sort of hierarchy and network in book-reading, and at the center of the largest networks we find the great works of humanity: The Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Five Classics, and the like.

A lot of evangelism is just making-available.

Development of doctrine arises from the fact that we deal with divine mysteries, which cannot fully be expressed in language; some languages can better express different aspects, however. And as we express the mysteries in various langauges, natural and artificial in various degrees, and remember what has been said, the doctrine concerned with the mystery continues to develop, as long as the mystery is not lost.

perceived, inferred, and posited beings of reason

You cannot be equitable while focusing wholly on negatives; you must build on good.

the oblique destruction of the innocent as a major problem of the age

the universal convening power of the Holy See
the universal advising power of the Holy See

Citizenship posits civil liberty, perpetuity of citizenship, and participation in the civil order.

"But of every society, it may be stated that the greater and more varied is its membership, teh les sunity it has, and the lower its overall quality becomes." Hilarion Troitsky

progress in inquiry: refining problems, finding better questions, positing possibilities, testing options, answering questions, solving problems

The moral action in itself bears a kind of authority.

Our relation to Scripture cannot take Scripture *primarily* as a source of proof.

Compassion is a great power for good, but it is a great power for good because it is a great power, and like all great power it can destroy as well as create.

To empower someone is to make them responsible.

Movements survive by developing structures to survive the dissipation of spirits of enthusiasm.

With respect to officia, that is unlawful which makes one unfit for the officium. (cp. ST 2-2 2.40.2)
-- the persona of the office

False opinions about principles do not vitiate the principles.

the sins against peace as an account of societal breakdown

moral, jural, and sacral titles of possession

right to, right with, and right over

Our most basic expereinces come already valued -- soothing and scary, beautiful and ugly, safe and dangerous, delicious and foul, messy and tidy, bland and expressive.

bishop in Confession of Dositheus
(1) successor of the Apostles by imposition of hand and invocation of Spirit
(2) living image of God on earth
(3) fountain of all mysteries of the Church through the Spirit
(4) necessary for the Church

seven capital delicts (Tertullian, Adv. Marc 4. 9): idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, fornication, perjury, fraud

charity as source of act of peace, wisdom as ordering form of act of peace

Only by mercy can we appeal to justice.

All love is both unitive and generative.

One may repent of human sin without being ashamed of human potential.

In the Eucharist, Christ literally becomes our companion.

marriage as free: apostolic; as full: one; as faithful: holy; as fruitful: catholic

order and disorder as values -- any arrangement of anything exhibits values of at least a general kind

values as particular modes of practical salience for objects
-- natural values, imposed values, customary values

the sense of beauty as perspective-widening

habitus as the term of training

In order to explain things to beginners, one must often first move to a more advanced point of view than that used by most nonbeginners, and from that more advanced POV produce simplifications that encapsulate what is done by nonbeginners, in a form that beginners may use.

A very large part of anyone's knowledge of the natural world is subjunctive.

We learn language through the overlap of our lives with the lives of others.

The less traditional a society gets, the less people seem to be able to explain why they do what they do.

What we often call freedom is in reality the capacity for actual freedom, whichneeds completion by skill and by virtue to be actual freedom in the most proper sense.

Apologetics cannot be done wholly at the level of argument.

Barnabas 4:9 // Didache 16:2-3

blessing from 1QS, the Manual of Discipline: "May He bless you with all good and keep you from all evil, and illuminate your heart with insight into things of life and grace with knowledge of eternal things, and lift up his gracious countenance to you to grant you everlasting peace."

"Men cannot be purified unless they repent their evil." Manual of Discipline

The Didascalia takes the fundamental purpose of the widows to be to pray "for those who give and for the whole Church"
-- "she is the altar of God"
-- however, they also clearly have the function of doing good works and aiding the bishops in good works with money they receive, and with some basic trade (like woolworking); the Didascalia is very concerned with abuses connected to the former.

"Teach your children crafts that are agreeable to religion, lest through idleness they give themselves to wantonness." Didascalia

Credibility is both a theoretical and a practical matter, and may be considered either way.

We believe in sacred Scripture because the Holy Spirit witnesses and guarantees the truth of it, objectively in the Church and subjectively in our participation in the Church.

The perpetual temptation of Protestantism has been to reduce Scripture to private revelation, as the perpetual temptation of post-Reformation Catholicism has been to reduce it to the construction of the Church. In reality, it is different from and higher than either private revelation or Church decision.

the 'What then is the point of being Christian?' test of doctrine (note that this is used, although not as a primary argument, by St. Paul, in 1 Cor & Gal)

thing -> object -> value
mood as emergent value of system of objects
--one can perhaps adapt Mill's argument on higher and lower pleasures to all forms of value -- uses, vital values, cultural values, transcendent values

Causation is an experientially felt principle.

reasonableness-credibility & helpfulness-credibility
suaveness-plausibility & handiness-plausibility

Seeing is not something that merely happens to us; it is something we do. We see towards things, look at them.

Hobbes should be given credit for seeing something that others missed: post-Reformation European-style governments tend toward totalitarianism,a nd the moder notion of sovereignty combined with a rejection of the Catholic Church as Catholic (i.e., a universal society with its own integrity and unconstrained authority) requires totalitarianism.

school (of thought): network united by shared positions
epoch: network united by shared problems

the Church Militant as the Church in the womb

To philosophize is necessarily more than a mere registering of the appearances of nature.

We can only recognize things as antecedent in terms of a power to order. Without such a power, nothing can be recognized as antecedent or consequent.

the unextended body, the extended mind

Scottish Common Sense Philosophy tended to put their accounts in terms of 'constitution of nature', but you could easily reframe the principles of common sense as the conditions for being a human person.

One way to look at the wrong of lying is that it deliberately absues our obligation to extend some general credit to the testimony of others.

Just as 'prior to' has a logical as well as quantitative reading, so 'less than' has a logical as well as quantitative reading.

Suffering has moral importance only in light of virtuous responses to it, without the latter, it would just be something to take into account in practical decisions, like friction or budgetary restrictions.

In sensory perception we receive but gather in the receiving.

It is an error to think that tradition is just a deposit of precedents.

Through the Church, and especially in the sacrament of reconciliation, the tribunal of our conscience begins to harmonize with the divine tribunal; it finds its true calling as ministerial to that tribunal of mercy.

It is an error to think that restorative justice excludes retributive justice.

Ezk 34:3-4 and pastoral responsibility

We are consecrated and brought within sacred grounds that we might properly repent.

It's unfortunate that so many priests and bishops start talking about being pastoral at exactly the moments they want refuse to fulfill their responsibility to preserve gospel and sacrament, or when they want to violate the rights of the laity.

Almost all evidence for the Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson relationship would suggest at least as well for thinking it was actually a relationship between Hemings and Randolph Jefferson, not Thomas, and in some cases better. The primary reasons for thinking it Thomas in particular seem to be (1) some vague accusations at the time (not reliable and denied by Thomas) and (2) one line of family tradition (chich could just have drifted over time to the better known brother.

Computer science is a treasure trove of metaphors that arose as enduring extensions of literal uses that faded -- bug, patch, etc. In these cases, the extensions are functional; in patching software you are doing with respect to the abstract program (the extensions's shared bridge or rope to swing over on) the same thing that you would earlier have beend oing in putting a physical patch on punch cards.

baptismal priesthood and the sacrifice of alms

"If one uses new expressions, one throws new light onto the content expressed." Staniloae

Everything we talk about under the concept of 'development of doctrine' we could talk about under the concept of 'sameness of doctrine', because the point of the former is that there are necessarily modes of the latter.

"One and the same God is both unparticipable and participable." Palamas Triads 3.2.25

"Each of the divine dogmas is divided in its own time, economically, the ineffable Wisdom making opportune use, as is customary, of the madness and hostility of the heretics." Mark Eugenikos, Syllogistic Chapters

one: in Christ
holy: for Christ
catholic: with Christ
apostolic: from Christ

the Church Militant as icon of the Church Triumphant (cp. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata

the divided robe (1 Kg 11:30-36) and the undivide robe (Jn 19:23-24)

We cannot posit our own freedom without positing the freedom of others.

The danger of focusing on choice in politics is that inevitably people start trying to force the 'right' choices.

The minister creates the vicinage for the sacrament.

"Sacramenta per se esse sancta, non per homines." Optatus

factual statements as thick value statements

supernumeric unity, consecrated sanctity, universal jurisdiction, traditional constitution

essential elements of Hobbes's account of Leviathan: artificial animal, personation, convenant, sovereignty

Receiving grace, the appropriate response is gratitude. This morally requires acting according to an etiquette of gratitude, inasmuch as one may. The rules of etiquette of gratitude that govern Christian life are:
(1) To acknowledge the grace given.
(2) To give thanks and act thankfully in light of grace.
(3) To render return as is appropriate, of which we are told the most general forms are by love of God and of neighbor.
-- These are roughly associated with faith, hope, and love (i.e., expressed in confession, thanksgiving, and good works); for God also by grace gives us the power of appropriate grateful response.

Hobbes oddly takes prudence to be entirely a matter of experienced guessing.

The Spirit is not from the Father as the Son is from the Father, because then He would be the Son. But the Spirit must nonethless proceed from the Father, who is the Father as the Father of the Son. For the Father is not less the Father in the procession of the Spirit, and thus the Spirit that proceeds from the Father  does so as the Spirit of the Son, being from the Father so as to be in the Son. Thus He is after and with the Son in proceeding from the Father.

The Father is the Son's Father, but not the Spirit's Father; the Son is the Father's Son but not the Spirit's Son; the Spirit is the Father's Spirit and the Son's Spirit.

Praise is not a mere expression of liking; it differs in part by predicting that others if they consider the matter will also find cause to praise.

Beethoven's Hammerklavier (Piano Sonata No. 29 in Bflat Major, Op 106) treats the piano as an ideal instrument commensurate with an orchestra.

The divine unity is so great that we cannot describe it in only one way.

Living is a means to the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Conscience by its nature looks to something higher than itself.

"Cognitio Trinitatis in Unitate est fructus et finis totius vitae nostrae." Aquinas Sent 1d2ex9

You should only follow your heart if your heart is pure.

the Platonic dialogues as a picture of human nature -- one could read the dialogues just for the characterizations and learn much

dismantling systems of stupidity

To base ethics on maximizing anything is usually to base it on guaranteed failure.

The only ethics that can afford to ignore issues of double effect is an ethics in which intentions do not matter.

Conceptions of romantic love are based heavily on books, songs, movies, etc. 'Romantic' here functions as an aesthetic category, like 'picturesque'.

Hobbes claims that metaphors should not be used in reasoning, but never has any arguments without them.

Human dignity is a shared dignity, a co-dignity.

values as reasons for love

All psychology is faculty psychology.

"Every instance of generation (genesis) is for the sake of some being (ousia) or anotehr, and generation in general is for the sake of being in general." Philebus 54c

passive potency as incomplete power

polarity as signed field
field as spatial representation of measurement

"To see God is both forbidden and promised." Palamas (Adv. Akind. 5.3.7)

The act of creation establishes a likeness to God, in which creatures participate.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Two Poem Drafts

 Drops of Rain

The drops of rain
are dotting sidewalks,
every one a grace;

they fall with rainbows
to flit on stoneways
and kiss the upturned face.


Love breathes in
and that is life;
love breathes out
and that is death;
in and out,
and all one breath,
till love is all --
when shadows fall,
when dawn begins,
just all in all.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Albertus Magnus, Doctor Universalis et Expertus

 Today is the feast of St. Albert, Doctor of the Church, most commonly known as Albert the Great, a title people began using of him in his own lifetime due to his eminence as the greatest teacher of his day, not only being an excellent instructor and eminent researcher but also teaching many students over a long career. From his work on the Eucharist:

For this sacrament brings the grace of communion, and beyond this, the grace of atonement, and upon these two it piles the grace of redemption, and in addition to these three it piles up the grace of vivification, and beyond these four, it gives the grace of spiritual refreshment, and beyond these five, it signifies to us the glory of eternal beatitude. From these it will be shown that it bestows a heap of grace and of holiness; indeed, by his body, it confers the grace of communion with all the members of Christ, and by his blood, it gives the grace of atonement, and by his soul, it truly [gives] the grace of redemption, and from the spirit of Christ, it gives the grace of vivification and of virtue, and by his divinity, it causes the grace of refreshment, and by the whole sacramental sign, it gives the grace of eternal beatitude.

[Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, Surmanski, tr., The Catholic University of America Press (Washington DC: 2017) p. 61 (Distinction One, Chapter Five).]

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Between the Boughs, a Window's Light

 The Window on the Hill
by Madison Cawein  

Among the fields the camomile
 Seems blown mist in the lightning's glare:
 Cool, rainy odors drench the air;
 Night speaks above; the angry smile
 Of storm within her stare. 

 The way that I shall take to-night
 Is through the wood whose branches fill
 The road with double darkness, till,
 Between the boughs, a window's light
 Shines out upon the hill. 

 The fence; and then the path that goes
 Around a trailer-tangled rock,
 Through puckered pink and hollyhock,
 Unto a latch-gate's unkempt rose,
 And door whereat I knock. 

 Bright on the oldtime flower place
 The lamp streams through the foggy pane;
 The door is opened to the rain:
 And in the door -- her happy face
 And outstretched arms again.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Authors and Greatness

I see Michael Huemer is face-planting on the subject of literature at "Fake Nous". Part of the argument is influenced by an argument by Sam Bankman-Fried that became notorious when Michael Lewis's book about him came out. The argument is from a 2012 blog post. I include part of it just to make the point of how absurd the argument is: 

I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare and the constitution and Stradivarius violins, and at the bottom of this post I do*, but really I shouldn't need to: the Bayesian priors are pretty damning. About half of the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that. When Shakespeare wrote almost all of Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate--probably as low as about ten million people. By contrast there are now upwards of a billion literate people in the Western sphere. What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564? The Bayesian priors aren't very favorable.

This argument is fantastically bad; in Bayesian theories of evidence, priors can't be 'damning', by definition; the whole point of a prior probability is that it will change (be updated) with new information, so you can't dismiss anything based only on its prior, by definition. Indeed, famously we know that, allowing certain easy assumptions, no matter how bad the prior probability for a claim is, if it is larger than zero, there is some new evidence that could in principle require an update to a high probability that the claim is true. What is more, Bankman-Fried does not assess the prior probability correctly; the prior has to take into account all relevant information already in possession, but Bankman-Fried has deliberately refused to include as part of his evidence the widespread testimony to the excellence of Shakespeare. Third, he misconstrues even the basic probability problem. The question is not, "How probable is it that the greatest English writer up to now was born in 1564?" The actual problem requires a more interesting reflection. The probability that candidates for the greatest English writer up to now were born at some point in the past is one; it is absolutely certain that anyone who can be considered one of the greatest writers up to this moment has written before this moment. It is also certain that any candidate for the greatest English writer up to now wrote at some point after the development of something identifiable as English that has literary remains; the earliest of these (and the first great works in the history of English literature, like Beowulf) are in the seventh and eighth centuries. Therefore, we know for a fact that the greatest English writers up to now, who must by definition already have been born, lived somewhere during those thirteen centuries.  A title like the 'greatest writer' is going to depend on how many great writers there are, not directly on the general literate population; even if we assume that there are more great writers in the twentieth century than in prior centuries, the probability that serious candidates for the greatest writer would have occurred at some point in the twelve centuries before the past century rather than in the past century (which is what Bankman-Fried is really arguing against) is actually very good. And, again, this is all before we have even considered the fact that he constructs his prior probability incorrectly by deliberately ignoring evidence.

Huemer, unfortunately, does the same thing in his blog post:

As SBF said, it would be surprising on its face that the greatest writer should have been born in the 1500’s, when (a) there were a lot fewer people in total than today, (b) people had much lower literacy, and (c) they had much less education.
It is not in fact "surprising on its face". As with the above, the relevant probability problem is not "How probable is it that the greatest writer should have been born in the 1500's?" but "How probable is it that the greatest writer should have been born at some point before the recent past?" Also, as noted above, this judgment of the claim being "surprising on its face" deliberately ignores the evidence of widespread testimony that it is so, and therefore is only getting the surprisingness by gerrymandering the evidence to get it.

Huemer gives additional arguments, all of which are bad. The first:
People have a bias towards old things in other areas. E.g., if you ask who the greatest thinkers are in almost any area (unless it’s a new field, like computer science), people almost invariably name figures from long ago.
If you ask who the greatest thinkers are in any area at all, people will always give someone whose work is not in the future; that is to say, the question is specifically about the past. There is no given measurement for "long ago"; is it Aristotle-long-ago, or Beowulf-long-ago, or Shakespeare-long-ago, or Mark-Twain-long-ago? Without knowing anything more specific, all it means is an indefinite "non-recent past"; and since the argument explicitly identifies a kind of exception, it reduces to claiming that people will say the greatest in a field is from the non-recent past, except occasionally when they will say the greatest in a field is from the recent past. There is nothing in this that is capable of identifying any kind of bias.

The second:
“Being the greatest writer” is not a property that you can just see. There is no proof of someone’s “greatness”. It’s a matter of highly subjective judgment, which is exactly the sort of thing that would be very easily influenced by bias.
"Being the greatest writer" is obviously comparative, and obviously in this context is not put forward as a merely subjective but an intersubjective judgment; as people in aesthetics have repeatedly noted, aesthetic judgments of this sort are claims about what will tend to be judged by people familiar with the points of comparison, especially (since it answers Huemer's bias point) where those people have different backgrounds. Appreciation for some authors is mostly confined -- to a place or time or culture -- whereas for others, like Shakespeare or Austen, once it picks up it becomes stable and widespread, and also crosses cultural lines. To say that someone is a great writer in English is to say that they can be appreciated by Anglophones who enjoy reading, Anglophones of all sorts, Anglophones whatever their cultural assumptions. This does not eliminate all possible bias, but it makes it relatively insignificant, in the sense that the judgment is tested in a context that means that its dependence on at least a very large range of possible biases is not throwing off the results. As to any biases that it does not cover, they are going to have to be extremely common, and it is not in fact an argument against Shakespeare being the greatest writer of English, a human language, that vast numbers of human beings of all sorts of human backgrounds are inclined for human reasons to value what he has written, even if you do call the reasons for it 'bias'.

Huemer's third argument is the closest to a good argument; he argues that the reason why the 'greatests' tend to be from the "distant past" is that reputation builds. The thing of it is, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't, as previously noted. Some reputations fluctuate wildly, some diminish and never really recover. But the building reputation of an author means that, at the very least, people who like reading keep discovering things about their writing that they like, and pass them down to people who, not finding such assessments inconsistent with their own experience, pass them down. Again, Huemer is taking the intersubjective nature of aesthetic evaluation as if it were proof that it was more biased rather than (as it really is) proof that at least individual biases are not actually behind the evaluation. The evaluation is still defeasible, perhaps, but nobody has ever claimed that they had demonstrative proof of it from first principles. It's a very well established evaluation, one people of all kinds and backgrounds keep making in all sorts of contexts.

And all of these arguments are essentially irrelevant, in any case. The best criterion for greatness of writing is that given by C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism: if lots of people who like reading enjoy reading and re-reading a work, and keep doing so, it is a great work. Likewise, an author who delivers multiple such works is a great author, and if such people keep finding some such authors to be most excellent in this way, they are candidates for being among the greatest of their kind. Whether Shakespeare should strictly be considered 'the greatest writer in English', I don't know; there are different dimensions of writing, so it's likely that different authors can be 'the greatest writer' depending on the dimension one primarily considers. But none of these vague and poorly formulated probability games are very relevant to the question, and they certainly aren't enough to give definite conclusions, whereas widespread testimony is at least good enough for a presumption.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Links of Note

 * John Baez on Boethius on music and arithmetic, at "Azimuth"

* Elzė Sigutė Mikalonytė & Markus Kneer, What is Art? The Role of Intention, Beauty, and Institutional Recognition (PDF)

* Michael Walschots, Hutcheson and Kant: Moral Sense and Moral Feeling (PDF)

* Joseph Moore, Is Animal Liberation Speciesist?, at "Practical Ethics"

* Mauro Dorato, Properties and dispositions: Some metaphysical remarks on quantum ontology (PDF)

* Cameron F. Coates, Aristotle's Causal Definitions of the Soul (PDF)

* Conor Casey, Debating with the Bench, at "The New Digest"

* Roe Frestedal, The Moral Argument for the Existence of God and Immortality (PDF), discusses the relation between Kant and Kierkegaard.

* Katie H. Morrow, A Causal-Role Account of Ecological Role Functions (PDF)

* Andrew Loke's book, The Teleological and Kalam Cosmological Arguments Revisited, is available as open access online.

* Ernesto V. Garcia, A Kantian Theory of Evil (PDF)

* Josh Taccolini, Foucault, Marion, and the Irreducibility of the Human Person (PDF)

* David Polansky, Antisemitism and the discourse of privilege, at "The Critic"

* Hanoch Ben-Yami, The Development of Descartes' Idea of Representation by Correspondence (PDF)

* Matthew Sanderson, Kant's Theory of the Sublime, at "1000 Word Philosophy"