Friday, May 20, 2016

Oakeshott on the Problem of Evil

Gustav Doré. "Dudley Street, Seven Dials." 1872.

"A human condition is but rarely recognized as one of totally unrelieved agony, a 'city of dreadful night'; but its commonly felt dissonances are disease, urgent wants unsatisfied, the pain of disappointed expectations, the suffering of frustrated purposes, the impositions of hostile circumstances, the sorrows of unwanted partings, burdens, ills, disasters, calamities of all sorts, and death itself, the emblem here of all such sufferings. These miseries are hardly less keenly felt or less deeply resented when they are recognized to be, in part, the consequences of the prudential folly of the sufferer than when they are taken to be totally unmerited misfortunes. They are not ills merely to those who suffer them; indeed, they are often more difficult to countenance in the fortunes of others than in one's own. Their incidence has no plausible relation to good or ill-doing, although they may be believed to represent the displeasure of gods of uncertain temper, to be warded off by appropriate observances in which a precarious pax deorum is preserved. And whatever immediate remedy may be found for particular occasions of suffering, or for whole classes of these ills, the dissonance remains: a suffering relieved is not a cancellation of its occurrence."

[On Human Conduct, Michael Oakeshott, 1975]

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Ill-fated Physician

"According to the court chronicles, Jean d'Ailleboust began his labors as King Henri's physician in 1593, when he was already quite an old man; it is unlikely that he was born later than 1518.

In 1594, he was ordered to examine Gabrielle d'Estrées, the king's mistress, who was feeling unwell. When the king inquired what ailed her, Jean d'Ailleboust bluntly said that she was pregnant. The king was furious, to say nothing of Mlle d'Estrées, but the elderly physician did not budge; he even had the effrontery to predict, much to the king's displeasure, the exact day the royal bastard would be born.

Very near the day he had predicted, on June 7, 1594, Gabrielle d'Estrées delivered a healthy boy, the future César de Vendôme. Jean d'Ailleboust did not have long to enjoy the victorious outcome of his dispute with his royal master; he himself died under highly mysterious circumstances on July 24 of the same year. According to the chronicles of Sully and d'Estoile, he was poisoned by the spiteful Gabrielle d'Estrées. The king grieved the death of his honest old physician and regretted that he had spoken harshly to him before."

[The Two-Headed Boy, Jan Bondeson, 2000]

Monday, May 9, 2016

Notes, February 10, 2016

-One of the major dichotomies in Aristotelian ethics is between the active and contemplative life. The active life is the life of the politician, the man-about-town, the Athenian gentleman, the small business-owner, the socialite, the local physician, the knight, the attorney, the parish priest.  Those who chose the active life include Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Johnson, my father, and Donald Trump.

The contemplative life is life of the ascetic, the scholar, the philosopher, the monk or nun, the mystic, the drug-abuser, the mathematician, the museum curator, the landscape painter. Contemplatives include the Desert Fathers, William Bronk, and John Milton.

Here is one argument for the superiority of the active life: It is less fragile. True contemplation can only arise in very unusual circumstances -- often only with the support of religion. Most contemplatives have a strong feeling of vocation. Indeed, a life of contemplation would be unbearable to someone who needs frequent conversation and activity. A life of contemplation often requires subsisting on the most limited resources and a belief in the unimportance of material things.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Nazi Spy


"It was during the Second World War, and spy mania was raging. The public had been instructed to watch out for mysterious strangers, lights, signalling, and other indications of enemy espionage. The call was most warmly responded to by schoolboys. A popular tale in magazines of the time was of brave boys unmasking a German agent, a spy-catching craze swept the boarding schools of Britain. The authorities, not being readers of boys' comics, had no idea what was going on. Thus many odd incidents passed unexplained.

At Wellesley preparatory school in Broadstairs it became obvious to the pupils that their Latin master was a German spy. He bore a peculiar resemblance to an obnoxious gauleiter depicted in The Hotspur, and a skin aliment had given his face the colour and texture of putty. It was therefore assumed that he was wearing a mask. Little Heathcote Williams, future poet and playwright, took on the task of exposing him. During Latin class, he rose from his desk, ran up to the master and began scrabbling at his face. Even as he did so, the absurdity of the whole thing became suddenly apparent to him, but it was too late to turn back. The rest of the class urged him on with cries of 'Spy!' until the master lost his nerve and bolted for the door. The headmaster was unable to make sense of what had happened so no one was punished."

[Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, John Michell, pg. 62-3]

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lewis on Puritanism, Catholicism, and rigorism

"We have come to use the word 'Puritan' to mean what should rather be called 'rigorist' or 'ascetic', and we tend to assume that the sixteenth-century Puritans were 'puritanical' in this sense. Calvin's rigorist theocracy at Geneva lends colour to the error.

But there is no understanding the period of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was no primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Catholic side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries.

The idea that a Puritan was a repressed and repressive person would have astonished Sir Thomas More and Luther about equally. On the contrary, More thought of a Puritan as one who 'loued no lenton fast, nor lightlye no faste elles, sauing brekefast, and eate fast, and drinke fast, and slepe fast, and luske faste in their lechery'--a person only too likely to end up in the 'abominable heresies' of the Anabaptists about communism of goods and wives. And Puritan theology, so far from being grim and gloomy, seemed to More to err in the direction of fantastic optimism. 'I covld for my parte', he writes,'be very wel content that sinne and payn and all wer as shortly gone as Tindall telleth vs. But I wer loth that he deceued vs if it be not so.'

More would not have understood the idea, sometimes found in modern writers, that he and his friends were defending a 'merry' Catholic England against sour precisions; they were rather defending necessary severity and sternly realistic theology against wanton labefaction -- penance and 'works' and vows of celibacy and mortification and Purgatory against the easy doctrine, the mere wish-fulfillment dream, of salvation by faith.

Hence when we turn from the religious works of More to Luther's Table Talk we are at once struck by the geniality of the latter. If Luther is right, we have waked from nightmare into sunshine: if he is wrong, we have entered a fools' paradise. The burden of his charge against the Catholics is that they have needlessly tormented us with scruples; and, in particular, that 'antichrist will regard neither God nor the love of women'. 'On what pretence have they forbidden us marriage? 'Tis as though we were forbidden to eat, to drink, to sleep.' 'Where women are not honoured, temporal and domestic government are despised.' He praises women repeatedly: More, it will be remembered, though apparently an excellent husband and father, hardly ever mentions a women save to ridicule her. It is easy to see why Luther's marriage (as he called it) or Luther's 'abominable bichery' (if you prefer) became almost a symbol. More can never keep off the subject for more than a few pages..."

[C.S. Lewis, "Donne and Love Poetry," Selected Literary Essays. I've added paragraph breaks to make it easier to read.]

Lewis's mention of Chesterton is keen. The odd streak of Epicureanism that ran through Chesterton is not mentioned often enough. It makes him an unusual (some might use stronger language here) Catholic apologist.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Meaning as "use"

-Wittgenstein is usually held to have believed that the meaning of a word is identical with its use in human life.

There is a good counter-example to this. You can imagine something like Being There, a dim-witted politician who knows just when to use the appropriate words and phrases but has actually no idea what they mean.