Saturday, October 8, 2016

Untitled Poem by Sami Mansei

"Kofukuji Temple in Nara," Tsuchiya Koitsu, 1937

  To what
Shall I compare the world?
   It is like the wake
Vanishing behind a boat
That has rowed away at dawn.

[Translated by Edwin Cranston]

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.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Journal, May 9th

-"They have written about physical and emotional woes, about victories and exploits in affairs of war, of sensuality, of passion, etc. They have overlooked the great misfortune, of not understanding -- or of its opposite, the joy of doing so."

-What Dante learned from the Bible was how to write so that the man in the street could understand but the scholar would be perplexed.

-Al Farabi: the soul is that which is capable of defining and by defining reaching the pure reality of an object.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Joseph Addison on the Cavilling Critic

...[T]he Rabble of Mankind [is] very apt to think that every Thing which is laughed at with any Mixture of Wit, is very ridiculous in it self...

Besides, a Man who has the Gift of Ridicule is apt to find Fault with any Thing that gives him an Opportunity of exerting his beloved Talent, and very often censures a Passage, not because there is any Fault in it, but because he can be merry upon it...

Samuel Palmer, "The Harvest Moon." Circa 1833.

A famous Critick...having gathered up all the faults of an eminent Poet, made a Present of them to Apollo, who received them very graciously, and resolved to make the Author a suitable return for the Trouble he had been at in collecting them. In order to this, he set before him a Sack of Wheat, as it had been just threshed out of the Sheaf. He then bid him pick out the Chaff from among the Corn, and lay it aside by it self. The Critick applied himself to the Task with great Industry and Pleasure, and after having made the due Separation, was presented by Apollo with the Chaff for his pains.

[Joseph Addison, Spectator 291, emphasis in the original]

Monday, March 28, 2016

Lycan on Objectivity in Ethics and Epistemology

"It's interesting that this parallel [between ethics and epistemology] goes generally unremarked. Moral subjectivism, relativism, emotivism, etc. are rife among both philosophers and ordinary people and yet very few of these same people would think even for a moment of denying the objectivity of epistemic value; that is, of attacking the reality of the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable belief. I wonder why that is?"

[William Lycan, "Epistemic Value," Synthese 1985, pg. 137, h/t to Daniel Boyd]

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Archilochus on his shield

Bronze Corinthian Helmet, ca. 500 BC

Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.

[Translated by Guy Davenport.]

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Notes on Hegel's Vision of Freedom

Like everything on this blog, these are the notes of an amateur, and they ought to taken with a grain of salt, if taken at all. 03/18/2016

-At first, you might think that the most fundamental conception of freedom is Selbstbestimmung, self-determination. Let's start with this hypothesis, and see what we can make of it.  Hegel calls this first pass at a definition of freedom "being-with-oneself."

What would absolute and complete full self-determination, complete being-with-oneself look like?

Well, the opposite of self-determination is dependence. Now there is metaphysical dependence: something might depend on something else to exist. Peter van Inwagen's example is a wrinkle in the carpet. The wrinkle needs the carpet to be there for it to exist as well.

And there is epistemic dependence: the way one concept could only be understood with the help of another concept. If this seems obscure, consider the idea that something might only be explained [or at least most helpfully explained] by contrasting it with another idea. If X is totally epistemically independent of Y, then X can be understood fully without recourse to comparison with Y. If X is totally epistemically independent, not just of Y, but of everything, then it could be understood without the use of any other concept. It would be self-presenting or immediate.

Something that were completely self-determining would be both metaphysically independent and epistemically independent. Hegel thinks this is impossible. Nothing has these qualities, in his view.

So any freedom or self-determination that exists has to exist with some level of dependence, either metaphysical, epistemic, or some other kind. Hegel calls this "being-with-oneself-in-another." This is our second pass at an understanding of freedom. But how does this reconciliation of self-determination with dependence-on-the-other happen? It happens because the self stops experiencing the other as an alien and alienating presence.

Now there are at least two kinds of freedom or being-with-oneself-in-another.

(A) The first is speculative or theoretical freedom. This is the free contemplation of the world, a.k.a. philosophy. It's a kind of being-with-oneself-in-another because when we do philosophy we (eventually) come to understand that the world is our home, even though it often seems hostile and foreign in the beginning.

(B) Another kind of being-with-onself-in-another is practical freedom, which is the sort of freedom we exercise by using our will in the world outside our heads. Now practical freedom must be understood in three separate phases.
(1) Personal freedom -- This is when an arbitrary will is able to choose its own ends. Note that it is the will that is doing this, not some other faculty. You have this sort of freedom when you have a bunch of will-less objects or things that you have complete control over. Many teenagers have this sort of freedom; they have their own room, they have their own things that they have complete discretion over. 
(2) Moral freedom -- This is when a will is able to choose its own ends not spontaneously but in accordance with the self's vision of the good, a vision of the good that is reflectively endorsed by the self.   
(3) Social freedom -- This is when a society has created rational social institutions that are able to both (a) help form individuals capable of exercising both personal and moral freedom and (b) give definition and particularity to the citizen's vision of the good.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Journal, May 10th

-In most societies, the most educated class will also be the most effectively propagandized.

-A problem for the Burkean: a person can feel more at home in a foreign culture than the one they grew up in. How is that possible?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

"My Father Photographed with Friends" by William Bronk

Historic Hudson Falls, New York State Archives

This is my father photographed with friends, when he was young
Unsettled on the steps of a wooden porch, and the one
who lived there elegant beside him. They and the others
hopefully casual in the face of the deciding camera,
the judgments of which are unfeeling but can be swayed.
And I, as in some later picture of myself, 
look for a person identified beyond doubt, and knowing that he
is none of the others that he is not, yet still unsure,
under the features composed and trusting, who is there.
As if the decision were long and legal when handed down,
hard to be read and truly rendered in a such a case.
And hard, in the face, to find our usual pitiful ends.
God sweeten the bitter judgements of our lives. We wish so much.

[From Life Supports, 1976]

Friday, February 12, 2016

"Magna est veritas" by Coventry Patmore

Here, in this little Bay
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

[From The Unknown Eros, 1877]

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"...To catacombs, caverns, and deserts."

The Hermit, Mikhail Nesterov, 1889

And we, the wise men and the poets
       Custodians of truths and of secrets
Will bear off our torches of knowledge
       To catacombs, caverns and deserts.

[L.A. Lyusternik, quoted in Naming Infinity, by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor]

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"A Marriage" by R.S. Thomas

White Herons in Falling Snow, Ohara Shoson, circa 1927

We met
           under a shower
of bird-notes.
           Fifty years passed,
love's moment
           in a world in
servitude to time.
           She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
           closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
           'Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
            partner for
the last dance. And she,
            who in life
had done everything
            with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
            for the shedding
of one sigh no
            heavier than a feather. 

[From Collected Poems: 1945-1990]

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Notes from an Old Journal

1. "People said of Sam Ward that he was the only man capable of strutting while seated."

2. "The effect of the telegraphic style is to intimate a whole spectrum of moral discriminations without ever making them explicit."

3. "Is the primary task of human reason to find formal solutions to abstract problems, and impose these solutions on the raw material of the world, as we experience it? Or is the primary task to get acquainted with the world of experience in all its concrete detail, stating our problems and resolving them later, in the light of that experience?"

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Two Accounts of Literary Decadence

"What is the mark of every literary decadence? That the life no longer resides in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the pages comes to life at the expense of the whole -- the whole is no longer a whole. This, however, is the style of every style of decadence: every time there is an anarchy of atoms."

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, Section 7

"I would define that baroque as the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature. In vain did Andrew Lang attempt in the 1880's to imitate Pope's Odyssey, it was already a parody and so defeated the parodist's attempt to exaggerate its tautness. "Baroco" was a term used for one of the syllogistic reasoning: the 18th century applied it to certain abuses in 17th century architecture and painting. I would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage in all art, when art flaunts and squanders all its resources. The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labor is inherently humorous."

Jorge Luis Borges, Preface to the 1954 edition of A Universal History of Inquity