Saturday, February 18, 2017

Music on My Mind



Weird Al Yankovic, "Skipper Dan". Came to mind reading Geoff Edgers's WaPo article on Weird Al. While Weird Al usually does parodies, you should not go into this one expecting a parody.

Rosmini on Integrity and Corruption in Society (Re-Post)

I recently came again across this post, from a little less than three years ago, and it seems worth remembering.

********

War, servitude and barbarity are, therefore, characteristics and effects which follow the corruption of society through excessive desire of power, wealth and sensual pleasure. Three kinds of integrity correspond to the three kinds of corruption in peoples.

1. The sign of integrity relative to pleasure consists, as we said, in valuing a healthy, robust, general well-being of person rather than actual pleasure as a constant perfection in nature.

2. The sign of integrity relative to wealth consists in a greater esteem of one’s own freedom and independence than in devotion to wealth.

3. The sign of integrity relative to power consists more in love of justice, equity and beneficence towards all than in love of power and glory.

These signs and characteristics of integrity are found in all societies when we examine the most ancient, primitive stage of their foundation. Greece and Rome are our proof.

Bl. Antonio Rosmini, The Philosophy of Politics, Volume 2, Book 3, Chapter 3, section 322. Each sign of integrity, of course, has a corresponding sign of corruption.

Two points might be worth noting, as comment going beyond Rosmini.

(1) Each of the three signs signifies a different way of resisting the idea that might makes right; you can easily find all of these recognized in one form or another in Plato's assault against the sophists. One can also find them in Aristotle, in Cicero, and in a number of modern political philosophers like Montesquieu, but going back to Plato (and especially the Republic and the Gorgias) brings out very clearly, I think, exactly why these are things associated with the health of a society. The lack of these signs indicates that a society is doing little to resist the fundamental corruption involved in the idea that, in the memorable Platonic formulation, "might makes right and justice is the will of the stronger."

(2) It is very easy to argue that modern Western societies do very, very badly on all three points. While it hasn't vanished entirely, discourse about excellence in life has shifted from the idea of an objective well-being of person to that of accomplishing goals and satisfying preferences, to such an extent that it is difficult to get people to understand that it can be seen in any other way: weak on the first sign of integrity. Our political discourse is dominated by economic concerns, our social representations of success dominated by wealth, and we are more likely to think of people as consumers than as citizens: weak on the second sign. And our discourse about justice, equity, and beneficence is strangely mingled with discussion of glory and power (glory in the rather surprising importance of signaling to others that you are just, fair, and compassionate, to such an extent that it increasingly takes up more of the discussion than serious planning on how to improve people's lives in substantive ways, and power in the sense that discussion of these matters shifts so easily into talk of sanctions, whether informal or formal): weak on the third sign. (Rosmini would say that this is a fairly solid proof that we are in the final stage of social collapse, although this collapse may go on slowly or quickly depending on our pace of activity and the prior history of the society, and may be accelerated or retarded through external factors like wars and invasions.)

The second point is tied to the first point. I've taught the Gorgias to undergraduates for several years now, and it is very noticeable how attracted they are to the idea that might makes right, as portrayed by Callicles, for exactly these reasons. This doesn't mean that they agree with it -- that varies considerably (without having done any formal study, I would estimate that the three reasons most likely to be given by students for rejecting the idea out of hand are growing up poor or working class, being in a racial or ethnic minority, and having been raised in a religious household) -- but they are in the main actively tempted by it and have difficulty articulating any political or social vision that does not look like it. They have very minimal defenses against it, even when they resist it. And they are, of course, not at all atypical; these are things you have to be raised up into or trained to think through by people who practice what Socrates calls the true politics.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bonald and the Traditionary Argument

Off and on, I have been looking into various ways of understanding the traditionary argument, such as that used by Brownson, a bit more clearly. The traditionary argument, considered generally, has something of the following structure:

A) Deficiency of empiricism: The senses cannot convey necessities, infinities, or whatever (the exact focus varies); and yet we can know things about these despite having no sensory basis for them.
B) Necessity of language: (A) is essentially an argument for rationalism, broadly speaking: there are truths we know independently of the senses. But the traditionalist opts for a weaker rather than a stronger version of rationalism: the human mind being what it is, our ability to think about necessary truths depends not on pure thought but on our ability to use and understand language.
C) Requirement of teaching: Language is not something that automatically comes to human beings; we must learn it from those who already have it.
D) Impossibility of infinite regress: This sets up a series of teachers: we learn language from our teachers, who learned it from their teachers, who learned it from their teachers, and so forth. But it is absurd to suggest that the series of teachers goes back infinitely.
E) Conclusion: Therefore there must be a first teacher, who did not need to be taught; and this all call God.

Arguments of this kind had a brief but widespread popularity in the nineteenth century; but one often only gets a gesture at the argument. To understand the argument, one needs to look at its most forceful and influential exposition, which is that of Bonald in the Preliminary Discourse to his Législation Primitive. Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald (1754-1840) was a French statesman and is also considered one of the major figures in the early days of the field of sociology; the Législation Primitive was published around 1802. I've gathered below a few passages relevant to the traditionary argument. The translation is my own; as the passages were gathered from a first reading of the Preliminary Discourse and translated somewhat on the fly, I do not as yet vouch for strict accuracy on every point of detail.


Philosophy, which according to the pagans signifies the love of wisdom, and which signfies for us nothing other than the search for truth, began for man with speech, and for the world with writing.

***

The doctrine of the Hebrews revealed the cause; the philosophy of the pagans was stopped at the effects; Christianity came to reveal to the world the knowledge[connoissance] of the universal mean, medius, or mediator, of the being that unites the universal case to the universality of the effects, to the universe, and that forms the relation between the Creator and the creature.

***

These truths must be learned from men, if one wishes them to know them; and to speak to them the speech of God in order that they may have the thought of God...

***

This rational proposition: "Thought cannot be known save by its expression in speech" contains in itself all human knowledge [science], as the Christian maxim, "God is not known save by His Word" contains all the knowledge [science] of God, and for the same reason.

***

Speech is the natural expression of thought; necessary, not only in order to communicate knowledge [connoissance] to others, but in order to have the knowledge [connoissance] itself, intimate, that one calls having consciousness [conscience] of one's thoughts.

***

The solution of the problem of understanding can therefore be presented under this formula: "It is necessary that man thinks his speech before speaking his thought."

***

So the proof of the existence of a being superior to man, and of a law anterior to reason, is always equally strong; if one demonstrates that, given the operations of the human intelligence, and the necessary concurrence of his organs, it is impossible that man should discover speech and make a language, and that, far from having invented speech, man was not able, without speech, to have even the very thought of the invention.

***

It seems that one believes it more worthy of the grandeur of God to suppose that we receive thoughts immediately, and without the intermediation of a mean or milieu that realizes them and renders them sensible. Without doubt, absolutely incorporeal understanding could have ideas of this sort; but the organized understanding is but a mind in charge of helping a body: so that if it is thought, it, it must have been expressed; and God submitting himself, and more than that man, to the general laws that He has established, gave thought on condition of speech, as He has given vision on condition of sight, and hearing on condition of ear.

***

If the human race primitively received speech, as we have said above, it is wholly necessary that it has received, with speech, knowledge [connoissance] of moral truth. There is therefore a primitive, fundamental, sovereign law, a chief law, lex-princeps, as Cicero calls it, a law that man did not make and he cannot abrogate. There is therefore a necessary society, a necessary order of truths and of duties.

***

If language is of human institution, like the printing press and the compass, speech is not necessary to man in society; for nothing that man invents is necessary to society, because society existed before the invention. Domestic society itself is not more necessary to man, because the free agreement of father and mother for conservation of the child, presupposes will, thought, consequently expression, and if man invented speech, man invented, I do not say marriage, but family. Ad when I say speech, one must understand expression of thought, even by gestures, speech of those who do not have any other, of the deaf and the mute, but speech transmitted, like the other, by the interaction of men; for beasts have nothing of gestures, even though they have movements, and the blind do not have gestures, even though they have speech. Abandoned children, outsidof all communication with speaking men, do not make imitative gestures, even though they have animal movements, and given involuntary signs of pleasure, of sadness, and of desire. But in order to make imitative gestures, one must have seen actions to imitate, one must have observed that this gesture corresponds to this action, and consequently one must have lived in society with beings that think and that express themselves.

***

If speech is of human invention, there are no necessary truths, because all necessary or general truths are not known by us save by speech, and our sensations only transmit to us relative and particular truths. There are no geometrical truths; for how do I know, other than by speech and reasoning, that there are absolutely and necessarily straight lines, absolutely round circles, absolutely right-angled triangles, when my senses do not ever convey anything save relatively straight lines, and relatively round circles, etc., etc.? There are no arithmetical truths; for my senses see nothing save one, one one, and it is my speech that counts three, four, a hundred, a thousand, etc., etc., and which adds values that do not fall and have never fallen under my senses. There are no moral truths: for all these truths are not known to us save by forms of language that the inventor, free in his inventions, was able not only to invent, but to invent wholly different from those that exist today, and even different inventors in different people, for why is there but one inventor? There are no historical truths, and men do not know anything save what they see and what they touch, and, again, even if he knows the beings, he is not able to combine their relations, because he cannot combine them save by the aid of thought expressed by speech.

***

The uniformity of languages, in the sense that they are intertranslatable, and the same thought is understood by diverse people, inclines against the attributed invention by man. There is a general institutor who has given a general tongue, which was modified according to place, time, and person; as one and the same teacher of writing has given to a hundred students a different writing, according to the structure of their members and the liveliness of their minds, and as one hundred different figures of speech render one and the same thought, one hundred different writings render one and the same speech.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Three Poem Drafts

Septimontium

In Septimontium ancient days
still whisper down the lanes and ways,
still hint a gleam to eager eye,
the vestige of forgotten years
light-freshened by the tender tears
of passing clouds in rain-washed sky --
but just a touch; tears soon will dry.

On seven mountains vestal flame
once burned, the heart of life and peace,
but even holy flames may cease;
now all is gone save trace and name.

In Septimontium olives grow
by marble pillars long laid low
on which the seagulls stand and cry.
The world is passing; it has passed;
all things must fade and cannot last;
and soon is nothing left but sigh --
and even that trace, too, must die.

Misting Rain

The misting rain is coating sidewalks,
beading hair and dewing faces,
and all through the empty streetways
one gust another swiftly chases.
Down an alley-lane it races!
Fleet of foot, the breezes play.

Perhaps the moon is early-risen,
but none would know; her face is hidden.
Across the dome, the sky is darkness,
and breeze on breeze is tempest-ridden,
like an army hasty-bidden,
turned out in threatening marching dress.

Slough and Storm

With a sloughing of the wind
and a shishing of the rain,
my heart is tumbling over;
shall I see my love again?

As weather when it wuthers,
as wind in gusting bluster,
my heart is pounding thunder;
shall I see my love again?

Measure

Theaetetus 151e-152a:
And, indeed, if I may venture to say so, it is not a bad description of knowledge that you have given, but one which Protagoras also used to give. Only, he has said the same thing in a different way. For he says somewhere that man is “the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.” You have read that, I suppose?

Theatetus 179a-179b:
Then it will be a fair answer if we say to your master that he is obliged to agree that one man is wiser than another, and that such a wise man is a measure, but that I, who am without knowledge, am not in the least obliged to become a measure, as the argument in his behalf just now tried to oblige me to be, whether I would or no.

Laws 716b-716c:
Athenian
...Looking at these things, thus ordained, what ought the prudent man to do, or to devise, or to refrain from doing?”

Clinias
The answer is plain: Every man ought so to devise as to be of the number of those who follow in the steps of the God.

Athenian
What conduct, then, is dear to God and in his steps? One kind of conduct, expressed in one ancient phrase, namely, that “like is dear to like” when it is moderate, whereas immoderate things are dear neither to one another nor to things moderate. In our eyes God will be “the measure of all things” in the highest degree—a degree much higher than is any “man” they talk of.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Evening Note for Tuesday, February 14

Thought for the Evening

Jon Day, The Problem of Public Sculpture, notes the common disinterest, and sometimes hostility, of the public toward a great deal of public sculpture. In the course of doing so, I think it very clearly indicates what one should not do in public sculpture. For instance, one of the ideas that was guiding the public sculptures discussed was 'obtrusiveness' -- a perhaps more appropriate term than the person who used it realized, since obtrusiveness is an impertinent pushing of oneself on another's attention. Needless to say, the public tends not to approve of the obtrusive. Even more obvious is the case of the sculptor who thought that the problem of public sculpture was all about the public and not about the sculpture. Is there any surprise that people dislike something that is presented from such a posture of arrogance. It is one thing to defend one's work on its own merits; it is another to act as if you were entitled to people's attention and approval.

I think it's reasonable for people to be skeptical of much public artwork; it has a tendency to communicate poorly. I've mentioned the installation at the Milwood Branch Public Library in Austin, which is optimistically titled, "Learning to Fly", but which I can never see without titling it, "Invasion of the Zombie Children". And it's actually not all that bad; it is not obtrusive -- it's a set of sculptures in a landscaped area with trees and rocks so it does not force itself on you, and it is competently done. You would never guess beforehand that it represented children learning to fly, but once you are told it makes a certain amount of sense; you can actually see the point when it is pointed out to you, which is more than one often can. But it still shows the gap between the sculptor's intent and the public's reception.

What people want -- and in a real sense need -- from public sculpture is not obtrusiveness but disponibilité, a sort of at-your-service-ness. The problem with the obtrusiveness approach is that it demands that the public be disponible to the sculpture; unsurprisingly, the public tends to have its own attitudes. People have strong reactions against ugly things, for instance, that they can't avoid looking at; the imposition of what is not pleasing is quite naturally resented. At the same time, they tend to be much more tolerant even of ugly things if those things in some sense are at their service; an ugly statue children can play on will be tolerated more than an equally ugly statue that nobody can do anything with. Surprise and provocation are not only fine but assets -- if it is surprising or provocative pleasantness or usefulness. There was an old Arts and Crafts maxim that you should only have things that are useful or beautiful in your house; a similar maxim would be a reasonable approximation for things in the larger dwelling of our public spaces. Public sculptures are expressions of public rhetoric; like other forms of rhetoric, they have for their ends delight, utility, and education, in varying proportions.

In Washington, DC, there is a fairly innocuous statue of John Witherspoon near Dupont Circle. Witherspoon, of course, was a significant Founding Father; he signed the Declaration of Independence and played a significant role in establishing Princeton as the sort of school that could turn out -- well, that could turn out Founding Fathers. I doubt most people pay much attention to it at all. But it serves as a marker, available for those interested. Originally, the statue was across the street from a Presbyterian church, which was one of the reasons the location was chosen, Witherspoon being a Presbyterian minister; the church is no longer there, but as long as it was, the church every year would host a service and some minor festivities, so it originally served as a way for the local community to engage with its patriotic heritage. As far as I know, there is nothing like that done today, but it is still available should anyone wish to use it, and people occasionally hunt it out for history walks and the like. It is not obtrusive; it is disponible.

Links of Note

* Ernesto Priani, Ramon Llull, at the SEP

* Miriam Burstein does a little detective work on a quotation misattribution spanning more than a century.

* Thony Christie looks at the myth that it is easier to divide and multiply with Hindu-Arabic numerals than with Roman numerals.

* Interview with Richard Cohen on Levinas and Spinoza, at "The Book of Doctrines and Opinions"

* I had intended long before to link to Rob Alspaugh's post on the structure of Aquinas's Prima Secunda but it got sandwiched between the wrong tabs in the browser and so I kept not noticing it when doing links.

Currently Reading

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone
Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth
Mary Beard, SPQR
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
Jean Beathke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self
Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler

Radio Greats: Valentine to Jack Benny (The Danny Kaye Show)

Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky) was an all-around actor, comedian, and musician, and something of an overachiever in all three areas; he seems to have been something of a workaholic, since he was always juggling multiple projects. In 1945 and 1946, he did a variety show for the CBS radio network, The Danny Kaye Show; it became very popular, very quickly, but it didn't last long because of the host's busy schedule!

"Valentine to Jack Benny", from February 10, 1945, gives a good mix of the kind of antics one found on the show. Since the show usually specializes in goofiness as its particular brand of humor, mileage will vary, but there are some solid guests -- Eve Arden, for instance -- and it has my very favorite Danny Kaye song-skit, one of the great classic comedy songs: "Stanislavsky", which was written by Sylvia Fine, his wife.

You can listen to the show at Internet Archive. If you're pressed for time, you can listen to just the Stanislavsky skit on YouTube.

And, for no other reason than that everyone should hear it at least once, here is perhaps the one Danny Kaye song that is more famous than "Stanislavsky": "Tchaikovsky" (written by Ira Gershwin, and originally entitled "Tschaikowsky"), which names a number of famous Russian composers. Kaye tried to sing it faster everytime he sang it; they had to start doing it a capella because the orchestra couldn't keep up with him.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Significant Encounters

It is remarkable how deeply we can become trapped in our own inner world and how much this diminishes our ability, if we are not sufficiently prepared, to open ourselves to significant encounters, which are a gift from God. We focus on what lies immediately ahead, on our plans, and on those people we already know and will see tomorrow. As a result, we fail to approach those we do not yet know well with sufficient attentiveness to be able to grasp their importance fully.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle against Hitler, Crosby & Crosby, eds. & trs. Image (New York: 2014) pp. 66-67.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fortnightly Book, February 12

In some of my former novels, the object has been to trace the influence of circumstances upon character. In the present story I have reversed the process. The attempt made, here, is to trace the influence of character on circumstances.

Detective fiction began as a short story genre. Within the confines of a short story, one can elaborate a problem and solve it without wearying the reader or overcomplicating the problem. The jump to a novel-length work of detective fiction is not a trivial one. To do it requires shifting the structure of the tale from a focus on problem-solving to a focus on character interaction -- while keeping the character interaction tied to some kind of mystery to be solved, which, after all, is what makes detective fiction what it is. While there were a few attempts to stretch puzzles to book lengths before, it's generally held that the jump was made, properly speaking, by Wilkie Collins in the summer of 1868, when he serialized The Moonstone in Dickens's journal, All the Year Round. As the first full-length detective novel, it has endured quite well, and has high accolades -- G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and T. S. Elio t have all claimed it to be the best of all stories of detective fiction.

Apparently both The Weird Circle and Suspense did radio adaptations of the story, so if I have time I'll have to hunt those down for comparison.

On her eighteenth birthday, Rachel Verinder inherits a massive and beautiful diamond that had been taken from India by a corrupt officer in the British army; after the birthday party, the diamond is stolen. Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, although a brilliant man, is unable to solve the mystery because the gentry are not telling him everything. A gentleman, Franklin Blake, is also attempting to unravel the mystery, one that can only begin to be solved by the careful interconnecting of the different perspectives of the people involved....

Saturday, February 11, 2017

John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Introduction

Opening Passage:

When Uther Pendragon was King of England his vassal, the Duke of Cornwall, was reported to have committed acts of war against the land. Then Uther ordered the duke to attend his court and to bring with him his wife, Igraine, who was famed for her wisdom and beauty. (p. 3)

Summary: The unfinished Acts of King Arthur follows the Malorian tale, increasingly selectively, from the initial interventions of Merlin to the first small crossing of the line between Guinevere and Lancelot. The basic idea for the work as it stands is that it was to be a sort of summary draft, which would then be reworked by Steinbeck and made his own. Thus it is somewhat uneven. It is clear that Steinbeck did not, at the point that he was writing, quite know what to do with Merlin; in letters he remarks that Malory did not seem to know, either, and yet that the early tales concern the matter of building a kingdom, and thus are not easily left aside. He is able to do a bit more with Morgan le Fay, but it is only with the tale of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt that he really begins to hit his stride, and it is chiefly with "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake" that we begin to get a sense of what Steinbeck's final product might actually have been. It is somewhat sad, because it is entirely a might-have-been; Steinbeck went no further. The loss that is especially felt is that of the rest of the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, because Steinbeck's Sir Lancelot is truly a work of art.

In general, I am wary of modernizations of tales; they tend to strip out the ability of the originals to challenge us by insisting that everyone stand where we do. But Steinbeck's modernization of Lancelot is in many ways excellent -- the essentials are faithful to the original, but the modernization is done in such a way as to raise moral questions about modernity. It depicts with particular ingenuity the problem of restlessness, that ache for something more that never quite gets satisfied with the mundane, which is implicit in Malory but is brought out with special significance by Steinbeck. Having consolidated his kingdom and turned war into peace, King Arthur discovers that peace can be as dangerous to a kingdom as war when it creates the possibility of idleness, and the moral shallowness and restlessness to be doing something, anything, that idleness creates. To handle this, Arthur, on advice from Guinevere, encourages the idea that knights should not be idle but roam the country as enforcers of the King's Peace. But this is not really a solution; it is becoming clear that there is a restlessness to this, as well, and that young men wandering around fighting is perhaps not the most stable way to cure idleness. And it is this restlessness that Steinbeck seems to suggest will lead Lancelot and Guinevere to their downfall. Malory then goes on, after a tangle of knightly adventures (Gareth and Tristram) to the Roman episode and then the Grail. Both would tie easily into the theme of restlessness, although it seems clear that Steinbeck was skeptical of the value of the Roman episode and might well have dropped it entirely. But the restlessness sets up for the Grail. In one of the letters, Steinbeck notes that we tend to think that the Grail comes first, and then we get the Quest for the Grail; but that perhaps it is the other way around -- there was a need for a Quest, and the Grail happened to be the thing to serve. Out of restlessness we seek for something better and higher. But in the end, the restlessness never quite dies, and we continue on until our defeat. But sometimes, for a while, there is a taste of the higher and better, and the quest itself was part of that higher and better thing, even if it did end in loss.

There are many other aspects of the work that are excellent. Even though it is in the earlier section, when Steinbeck is still feeling his way, the account of how the code of chivalry and the vows of the Round Table arise out of the various knightly quests is very masterfully and engagingly done. The prose is balanced, and one of Steinbeck's primary goals, to convey something of Malory without bogging down as Malory sometimes does, is certainly met. It is a lovely book that never quite was, and, indeed, a quest that ended in defeat but was worthwhile, anyway.

Favorite Passage:

She valued him with her eyes and chose her words with care. "Were you other than you are I would not conduct you to your death," she said. "Nor would I ask a boon knowing you might survive. But you are Lancelot and I dare do both. When you have had your do with Sir Tarquin, will you promise me a service on your knightly word?"

"If I would not--would you conduct me?"

"I must search for a good knight to help me, sir."

"I see. It appears that there is no damsel in the world without a problem whose solution requires the jeopardy of my life."

"Have you not sworn service to damsels and gentlewomen?"

"I have indeed. But sometimes I wish I did not have to honor my oath so often." (p. 257)

Recommendation: Recommended.

----

John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Chase Horton, ed., The Noonday Press (New York: 1995).