Wednesday, March 22, 2017

So that the Porters of the Pylons Shook

Dead Pan
by Dorothy Sayers

* At the hour of Christ's agony a cry of "Great Pan is dead!" swept across the waves in the hearing of certain mariners; and the oracles ceased. PLUTARCH.

* For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now.

* I fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ.

And there was darkness all over the land
Three hours; and in the dark so wild a cry
That all men hearing sought to understand
What thing it was that in such pain must die.

But there was darkness, so that none may say
What there befel, except the midnight bird
Whose staring face is still struck white to-day
For blank amaze at all he saw and heard.

He that maintained unblinded vigil there
Told us: "There were vast shapes which loomed and grew
Around, and He was fearfully changed: I swear
They were goat's feet the nails had stricken through.

"How mourned pale Isis, 'neath the hideous rood
Crouched in the dust! How passed in one fierce sound
Side-smitten Balder! For what grim festal food
Smoked forth the blood of Mithra to the ground?

"But Pasht my cousin, the wise African,
Looked from the judgment hall toward the North,
And knew all things fulfilled when thus began
The deathless Ritual of the Coming Forth;

"For One came treading those eternal floors
That was the Word of the tremendous Book,
Crying throughout the long-drawn corridors
So that the porters of the pylons shook:

"I am Osiris! and the gates reeled back
Before the God twin-crowned with white and red,
And an echo rose and went in the wind's track
Over the Middle Sea: Great Pan is dead! . . .
Whereat the oracles fell mute," he said.

Plutarch himself, of course, does not say that it was at Christ's death; but the story of the voice that cried out to the sailors, "Great Pan is dead" is found in his De defectu oraculorum, which is trying to explain why the divine oracles were not effective in his day. Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Preparatio Evangelica, Book V, Chapter XVII, quoted Plutarch's story and then notes the timing Plutarch attributed to the tale:

But it is important to observe the time at which he says that the death of the daemon took place. For it was the time of Tiberius, in which our Saviour, making His sojourn among men, is recorded to have been ridding human life from daemons of every kind: so that there were some of them now kneeling before Him and beseeching Him not to deliver them over to the Tartarus that awaited them.

The story is a fairly common part of the poetic treasury of English literature. It is referred to in a poem by Milton and by G. K. Chesterton; Elizabeth Barrett Browning also has a poem on the theme.

Rosmini and the Traditionary Argument

Rosmini has some interesting discussions of issues relevant to the traditionary argument. In the Theodicy (1845), he has a chapter called, Divine Origin of a Part of Language:

100. Without sensible signs, man could not even conceive abstract ideas. In fact, what are abstract ideas? They are simply qualities of beings contemplated by the mind in their ideality, and apart by themselves; they are mental conceptions. Now, where are the objects of such ideas to be found? Nowhere but in the mind itself....

...Now, how is this mode of conceiving possible? I answer:—

102. By means of an external sign, a sign which by holding the place of whiteness apprehended by the mind, gives it an existence also outside the mind; a sensible sign of the idea which is not sensible; in short, a word directed to single out the whiteness from among the other objects that surround it so long as it is perceived along with the bodies in which it really exists.

Here we have the essential feature of linguistic or semiotic rationalism: we have abstract ideas despite not sensing them; we cannot create abstract ideas by pure force of reason; we must have sensible signs of abstract ideas in order to think of abstract ideas. (Rosmini insists fairly strongly elsewhere on the 'abstract' qualifier; he does not hold that this is true of words that do nothing but mark common sensible experience.) In the New Essay Concerning the Origin of Ideas (1830), he summarized it quite straightforwardly (at section 521):

Humanity has no existence outside of the mind; it cannot therefore attract our attention, unless in some sensible sign which, being external to the mind, holds the place of that idea, giving it, as it were, subsistence. It is impossible, then, for the mind to conceive abstract ideas, that have no realities corresponding to them, unless it be moved thereto by sensible signs which may take the place of those realities and represent, or, to speak more properly, raise them before it.

To return to the Theodicy. On the basis of semiotic rationalism, we move on to get an indirect formulation of the traditionary argument itself:

From this it is plain that external signs were necessary to man in order that his mind might associate and bind up abstractions with them. But he could not invent those signs by himself, for the reason that to invent, he must already have been possessed of abstractions, which, nevertheless, he could not acquire save by means of words. God, therefore, imparted to him a language; that Supreme Instructor taught him the use of some words, in which the abstractions, contemplated together with them, might, so to speak, appear outwardly subsistent. These words could attract to themselves the attention of the mind, and determine it to fix itself on special qualities apart from the objects in which they exist. All this in accordance with the general law, that the human mind must primarily be moved to act by the impressions made on the sense by external objects.

Let's call the claim that inventing signs requires that one already possess abstractions that can only be acquired by means of signs, the Prior Possession Principle (PPP). It plays a key role here, since it is what motivates the rejection of the idea that human beings could invent their own language to speak about abstractions. To invent a language suitable for abstract ideas, one would already need abstract ideas; to develop abstract ideas, there would need to be a language already in existence. Thus the human mind must receive language from the outside, by a teacher; and from this one can get to a first teacher, who cannot be human or have a mind limited in the way human minds are.

Later, however, in the Psychology (1846), Rosmini will pull back from PPP:

We have elsewhere expressed the opinion that men could never by themselves have come to think and designate pure abstractions, for the reason that had they not in nature any stimulus to do so, and hence we inferred the divine origin of this portion of language. Since then, we have given this subject more mature reflection, and now that proof does not seem to us irrefragable. Let us, therefore, distinguish between the question of fact and that of simple possibility. As to the fact, there can be no doubt that the first man received his impulse to speech from God Himself, Who, by speaking to him first, communicated to him a portion of language. The arguments that prove this we shall set forth in another place. But confining ourselves to the simple metaphysical question of whether the human family (not an isolated man) might possibly in the course of time have come to think at least a few abstracts, designating them at once and with one and the same complex operation, by words or other signs, it seems to us now that it may be answered in the affirmative, and that we have discovered the stimulus we had vainly sought for before, by which the human understanding might have been moved.

(I'm not sure what 'other place' Rosmini has in mind here.) This is not, of course, a rejection of semiotic rationalism; Rosmini immediately goes on to say that "it is undoubtedly necessary that we should be able to find in real nature something to link the abstracts to, so as to serve as a natural sign of them; because it is only on this condition that the attention of the human mind can rest on them and seize them." What has changed is that he thinks that human beings who are already using a rudimentary language already (at least sometimes) have (some) such signs available. This happens by metonymy: 'hand', which you can just use to label your hand, becomes used for the things you can do with it (thus, although this is recognized only in retrospect when we have produced the abstract idea, hand+power), because it's much easier to keep using the same words than to keep inventing new ones. Once you are doing this, though, you already have the sign and therefore can form the abstraction. And thus effectively, given the sign 'hand' you can get the idea of power, and it's even the case that over a long time you might use it almost solely to mean power.

If we think of the traditionary argument as having certain basic elements, we can say that Rosmini accepts Deficiency of Empiricism and Necessity of Language (and thus upholds the semiotic rationalism of the traditionalist; but over time he came to think that teaching (in the traditionary sense of receiving one's language from another) was not strictly necessary, although there were reasons to think that, in fact, some language use does trace back to divine teaching. This is in part, however, because he holds that language has different 'portions', and it is only one portion -- the portion of language used for reasoning with abstract ideas -- for which the question is even raised. He continues to hold that a single human being could not possibly invent language for discussing abstract ideas. But he later comes to think that as long as a group of interacting human beings had developed a rudimentary language for labeling things they actually sense, this would actually suffice: laziness, so to speak, would lead to using labels loosely, and this loose use of signs serves as the semiotic basis for abstraction. This would not convince a hardcore traditionalist, I think; I think the traditionalist would argue that Rosmini is already attributing to pre-abstract thought things that could only be possible with abstract ideas. But the route he takes, appealing, in effect, to figurative language to get us beyond mere labeling of things we can sense, and thus to provide a way around PPP, is an interesting one.

Lent XIX

Save, O Lord, thy people, and bless thy inheritance: and rule them and exalt them for ever. (Psalm 27:9; 28:9 in most modern Bibles)

Christ, the head of the Church, having been glorified, it remains that his body, the people of God, who are his peculiar inheritance, he having acquired it with his blood, should be equally glorified. Christ then says to his Father, or the Prophet says to Christ, "Save thy people," and, in order to save them, "Bless them," by justifying them; "Rule them," by shielding, by protecting them on the road; "Exalt" them, by glorifying them, by glorifying them to eternity.

[St. Robert Bellarmine, A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, O'Sullivan, tr. Loreto Publications (Fitzwilliam, NH: 2011) p. 57.]

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Shannon and Boole

An interesting thing I did not know:

Shannon’s paper is in many ways a typical electrical-engineering paper, filled with equations and diagrams of electrical circuits. What is unusual is that the primary reference was a 90-year-old work of mathematical philosophy, George Boole’s The Laws of Thought.

Today, Boole’s name is well known to computer scientists (many programming languages have a basic data type called a Boolean), but in 1938 he was rarely read outside of philosophy departments. Shannon himself encountered Boole’s work in an undergraduate philosophy class. “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both fields at the same time,” he commented later.

I came across this with good timing; I'll be doing a class Thursday on the history of logic for my Intro Phil course.

Kingdoms Are but Cares

Henry VI is an interesting figure. The only son of Henry V, he came to the English throne at the age of nine months, and the French throne shortly afterward. This is an obvious recipe for a weak king -- a king so young he will spend all his early years entirely in the power of others, and who has moreover inherited a tangled political situation -- in this case the Hundred Years War, which was about to begin a major reversal due to a certain Jeanne d'Arc -- about which he could not do anything. Even making it to adulthood, such a king has already started adulthood in a state of great dependence, and strength of rule does not come of such things. What made it worse was that the young king, when he came into his full powers at the age of sixteen, was shy and averse to conflict; sufficiently strong-willed nobles could pretty much do as they pleased. To add to the problems, in 1453, in his early thirties, he had a mental breakdown over the war with the French, which by that point was going so badly almost nothing remained of the massive French territory that had been gained by his father. For an entire year he was almost completely nonresponsive to everything around him. When he regained his senses on Christmas, 1454, he found himself with a court of nobles who were not particularly interested in obeying his commands. The War of the Roses exploded all around him. He was thoroughly defeated by Edward of York -- now King Edward IV -- and had to flee to Scotland; Henry himself was soon captured, and his resourceful wife, Margaret, had to find a way to win his throne back. This, with a little luck, she managed, but Henry, still a very weak and dependent king, lasted less than six months. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London; exactly when and how he died is unknown, but he died by a blow to the head, probably in May of 1471.

Posthumous history would be kinder to Henry than life had been, and one of the ways it treated him more kindly was by spreading his reputation for piety. He was known to be quite devout, and his death had the overtones of martyrdom. Stories of miracles started collecting around his tomb, and it became, for a while, a popular pilgrimage site. This reputation was encouraged by the Tudors, who started advocating for his canonization. All of this infant tradition of veneration ended with Henry VIII and the overthrow of so many things in his wake, but popular devotion for a while ran far ahead of the slow process of formal canonization; in England on the verge of the Henrician reformation, Henry was already venerated as a saint. Some prayers were written for him:

As far as hope will yn lengthe
On the Kyng Henry I fix my mynde
That be thy prayer I may have strenkith
In vertuous life my warks to bynde
Though I to thè have been unkynde
Off wilfulnresse long tyme and space
Off forgeveness I aske the grace
Hop hathe me movyde to seke his place
In trust of socor thyn old properte
Was never man cam beforne thy face
Rebellion or oder yn adversitie
Off thyn compassion commaunded them goe free
Now for thi pety to hym that all schall deme
Pray for me thy servaunt and pilgreme.


My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the bed of aromatical spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies. (Song 6:2 [6:1 in the Vulgate])

Surely the bed of spices is the mind of the faithful, which is instructed in the discipline of true faith as though it were constituted with equal sides all around and as though a skillful gardener had turned it frequently so as to remove all superfluous plants, doubtless because the gardener scrutinizes it carefully and considers intently to make sure that it contains nothing profane, nothing unclean, nothing at all detrimental to heavenly salvation. He strives to make it worthy so that his beloved (namely, the beneficent sower of justice) should plant the spices of virtues in it and water it with his grace and continual assistance so that it never withers....

...Now he feeds in the gardens because he delights in the pious deeds of the saints....He gathers lilies when the just attain the perfect splendor of merits, and he leads them from this life to the heavenly kingdom....

[The Venerable Bede, On the Song of Songs and Selected Writings, Holder, tr. Paulist Press (Mahwah, NJ: 2011) p. 176.]

Monday, March 20, 2017


The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life: of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 26:1 -- 27:1 in most modern Bibles)

Tribulation brings on darkness, prosperity brings light and serenity; for tribulation confuses and confounds the soul, so that it cannot easily see how it ought to act, and thence is provoked to impatience, or to some other sin. But should God, by his divine light, dispel the darkness, the soul at once sees that the tribulation, which in the darkness of the night brought such horrors with it, was temporary and trifling; and sees, at the same time, that tribulation, when God protects us, can not only do us no harm, but even tends marvelously to our good.

[St. Robert Bellarmine, A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, O'Sullivan, tr. Loreto Publications (Fitzwilliam, NH: 2011) p. 53.]

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Crowned with the Thorn and Vine

Christus Dionysus
by Dorothy Sayers

There are three gates to the city;
One is of gold, and one
Beaten of shining silver,
And one is like the sun.

By one, the laughing lovers,
By two, the quiet priests,
By three, the Lord of laughter
Rides to the vineyard feasts;

Young Dionysus
Crowned with the thorn and vine;
His feet and hands are red with blood,
His mouth is red with wine.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

Chuck Berry, "Rock and Roll Music".

Wise Cyril

Today is the memorial of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Doctor of the Church. From his Catechetical Lectures (Lecture 2.1-2):

A fearful thing is sin, and the sorest disease of the soul is transgression, secretly cutting its sinews, and becoming also the cause of eternal fire; an evil of a man's own choosing, an offspring of the will. For that we sin of our own free will the Prophet says plainly in a certain place: Yet I planted you a fruitful vine, wholly true: how are you turned to bitterness, (and become) the strange vine? The planting was good, the fruit coming from the will is evil; and therefore the planter is blameless, but the vine shall be burnt with fire since it was planted for good, and bore fruit unto evil of its own will. For God, according to the Preacher, made man upright, and they have themselves sought out many inventions. For we are His workmanship, says the Apostle, created unto good works, which God afore prepared, that we should walk in them. So then the Creator, being good, created for good works; but the creature turned of its own free will to wickedness. Sin then is, as we have said, a fearful evil, but not incurable; fearful for him who clings to it, but easy of cure for him who by repentance puts it from him. For suppose that a man is holding fire in his hand; as long as he holds fast the live coal he is sure to be burned, but should he put away the coal, he would have cast away the flame also with it. If however any one thinks that he is not being burned when sinning, to him the Scripture says, Shall a man wrap up fire in his bosom, and not burn his clothes? For sin burns the sinews of the soul....

...But some one will say, What can sin be? Is it a living thing? Is it an angel? Is it a demon? What is this which works within us? It is not an enemy, O man, that assails you from without, but an evil shoot growing up out of yourself.

Lent XVI

Then when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin. But sin, when it is completed, begetteth death. (James 1:15)

'Temptation is carried out in three ways, by suggestion, by delight, by consent,' by the suggestion of the enemy, or by the delight, or even by the consent of our frailty. But if even at the enemy's suggestion we are unwilling to take delight in or to consent to sin, temptation itself carries us on to the victory by which we may deserve to win the crown of life.

[St. Bede, Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles, Hurst, tr., Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo: 1985). p. 15. The quotation is from Gregory the Great's Homilies on the Gospels 1.16.1.]

Friday, March 17, 2017

Inspiring the Love of Reading

Wherein Gerdil shows himself to have a better understanding of how children learn than many do:

It is a charming speculation to pretend to lead children through the whole course of their studies by always amusing them. The most necessary studies require hard work and self-denial. We may partially mitigate the coercive quality of study, but we cannot entirely remove it, and still hope to make solid progress. And therefore it is not by means of these kinds of studies that we will inspire children with a love for reading. But we will succeed with reading that is amusing and instructive, so long as we take care not to propose it as part of their studies, -- for the very word will ruin everything, -- but rather as a reward for applying themselves to their studies.

[H. S. Gerdil, The Anti-Emile, Frank, tr. St. Augustine's Press (South Bend, IN: 2011) p. 111.]

Lent XV

Then Jesus said to those Jews, who believed him: If you continue in my word, you shall be my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free...." (John 8:31-32)

Three things are required to be a disciple. The first is understanding, to grasp the words of the teacher: "Are you also still without understanding?" (Mt 15:16). But it is only Christ who can open the ears of the understanding: "Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures" (Lk 24:45); "The Lord opened my ears" (Is 50:5).

Secondly, a disciple needs to assent, so as to believe the doctrine of his teacher, for "The disciple is not above his teacher" (Lk 6:40), and thus he should not contradict him: "do not speak against the truth in any way" (Sir 4:30). And Isaiah continues in the same verse, "I do not resist."

Thirdly, a disciple needs to be stable, in order to persevere. As we read above: "From this time on, many of his disciples turned back, and no longer walked with him" (6:67); and Isaiah adds: "I did not turn back" (Is 50:5).

But it is a greater thing to know the truth, since this is the end of the disciple.

[St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 6-12, Larcher, tr., CUA Press (Washington DC: 2010), p.124.]

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Evening Note for Thursday, March 16

Thought for the Evening: Of Just Protest

Both in class discussions with students, and in various other situations outside of class, I've noticed a tendency not to think very critically about political protests. This occurs on two different levels -- one, there is a sort of cargo-cultism about protesting, in which people go through the motions without any real understanding of what they are doing; and two, there is a tendency not to recognize that protesting is the kind of thing that must be done according to ethical standards, beyond (what is often the only significant ethical issue to be considered) distinguishing between protest and riot. The first I set aside here, although I think it ends up being a severe problem; it will come up in passing in discussing the second, which I think is the more serious one.

There are a number of reasons why the ethical standards for protesting are actually fairly high, but the most essential of these arises from the nature of a protest in and of itself. A protest is by its very nature:

(a) a complaint, which must meet the kind of standard of reasonableness a complaint must meet; and
(b) a rebuke, and thus something that can be a punishment, which must meet standards of justice;

and therefore must meet ethical standards relevant to both.

Reasonable complaint requires moral standing to complain, which involves at least the following basic elements:

(1) A reasonable candidate for an injustice has been identified.
(2) The real cause of the injustice, to the extent possible, has been identified.
(3) The injustice must actually admit of an identifiable remedy.
(4) These three components must be properly integrated in the complaint, so that the protest is addressing the real cause of the injustice in such a way as to contribute to reaching the remedy.

(1) is sometimes the most vehemently debated, but it's arguably a fairly easy standard to reach, in part because even made-up reasons to protest (like those used by dictatorial regimes) may sometimes be only made-up in specifics. Generic injustices are easy to find. (2) is often an issue; one saw this with the Chik-fil-a protests a few years back, which were utterly ineffective because they were done without any understanding of how franchises work, so that the targets were all wrong. But I think this tends to be most commonly a problem with spontaneous protests in particular. I think the most common weakness with protests generally is with (3) and (4) -- one might think that this is a fairly obvious thing, but it is remarkable how often you can flummox people simply by asking them either "What, specifically, can and should be done to solve the problem?" or "What, specifically, is this protest supposed to do to help the problem get solved?" This ties in, I think, with the cargo-cultism I previously noted: people treat protests as if the point of them were to have a protest, when in reality protests are social means for achieving practical ends. And the position that people most often fall back to in answering the second question, that the protest is to "raise awareness", is a useless one -- protests are extraordinarily poor means for raising any kind of awareness at all. Raising awareness is what you do in order to get people to pay attention to your protest, and to pay attention to it in the right way; protesting in order to raise awareness is starting at the back end. The effectiveness of a protest depends on how aware people already are of the actual issues; a protest on its own cannot be interpreted properly without an already existing context in place; and raising awareness, on its own, doesn't actually do much, since such awareness, if not focused by something, is temporary and results in no practical action. If you are protesting only to raise awareness, you are wasting time that could be better spent on means that would actually address the problem.

Besides moral standing, there are additional conditions required for a rebuke to be fully just. For instance, it must be necessary -- that is, less drastic measures have been tried -- and it must be proportional to the problem -- overkill turns a rebuke into an unjust punishment. The protest must be legible, i.e., it must be set up in such a way that people can figure out why it's happening in the first place. And one must do it in such a way as is appropriate to common good -- that is, the way one does it must be focused on rendering benefit to everyone, even those against whom one is protesting. This is, I think, the most difficult of the standards to meet, and it is often not met; movements that have done unusually well at meeting it, like Gandhi in India, or many of the protests of the Civil Rights Movement, did not find it easy, and did as well as they did only because they put a lot of time and effort into trying.

People tend to assume, I think, that you've done your duty if you've avoided rioting, but finding out how to uphold the common good while protesting is not a trivial problem to solve. People also tend to assume that if your goals are just enough, you are done; but here, as everywhere else in ethics, your means must be appropriate and just. Both of these assumptions are very dangerous, ethically speaking, and seem to be tied to a tendency (which sometimes seems to be on the rise) to give oneself a free pass to attack your fellow citizens and human beings when you feel like it, without any consideration for them as citizens and human beings.

There are, in any case, various complications that arise that I haven't gone into here-- protests are often planned, but sometimes arise spontaneously in the face of egregious injustices, and the former arguably involves a rather stricter set of standards than the latter, for instance -- but the above all arise from general principles. You can't be a just person in any endeavor and not consider some analogue of these. There is no end run around them.

Various Links of Note

* John Irons translates the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, A Leaf from Heaven.

* Richard Marshall interviews Roman Altshuler on time and action.

* I recently gave a link to a translation of part of St. Francis Borgia's litany through the topics of Aquinas's Summa; for those who are interested, here is the full thing in Latin, all twenty-two dual-columned pages of it.

* Joseph Trabbic defends Plato's Republic.

Currently Reading

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born to be King
Christ - Our Pascha: Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church
Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers
Hyacinthe Sigismond Gerdil, The Anti-Emile
Michael Flynn, In the Country of the Blind

Music on My Mind

Peter Hollens ft. Tim Foust, "The Sound of Silence".

Lent XIV

And he said to man: Behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom: and to depart from evil, is understanding. (Job 28:27)

So, then, since The fear of the Lord itself is wisdom and to withdraw from evil, understanding, it follows that just men who fear God and withdraw from evil have wisdom and understanding, which are preferred to all the earthly goods which evil men possess. And so it is manifest that the rationale of divine providence is upheld in the fact that spiritual goods are given to the just as the better goods, whereas temporal goods are given to the evil as precarious goods.

[St. Thomas Aquinas, The Literal Exposition on Job, Damico, tr. Scholars Press (Atlanta, GA: 1989) p. 339.]