Thursday, November 26, 2015

Relaxing the Bow

Now just as weariness of the body is dispelled by resting the body, so weariness of the soul must needs be remedied by resting the soul: and the soul's rest is pleasure, as stated above (I-II, 25, 2; I-II, 31, 1, ad 2). Consequently, the remedy for weariness of soul must needs consist in the application of some pleasure, by slackening the tension of the reason's study. Thus in the Conferences of the Fathers xxiv, 21, it is related of Blessed John the Evangelist, that when some people were scandalized on finding him playing together with his disciples, he is said to have told one of them who carried a bow to shoot an arrow. And when the latter had done this several times, he asked him whether he could do it indefinitely, and the man answered that if he continued doing it, the bow would break. Whence the Blessed John drew the inference that in like manner man's mind would break if its tension were never relaxed.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.168.2. Quies animae est delectatio: we could also translate it as 'The quiet of the soul is delight', and 'delight' perhaps gets us closer than 'pleasure' to what Aquinas means here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Saint Catherine of the Wheel

Today is the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin Martyr, patron saint of philosophers. She is one of the most popular virgin martyrs in history, and is found in endlessly many paintings, sculptures, and the like. Most of them have to do with the stories of her martyrdom, when the attempt was made to break her on the wheel -- that is, she was strapped horizontally to a wagon wheel and beaten. One would use a wheel because wheels were the most sturdy large things that you could lay horizontally like a table that would not be solid like a table. Then the person laid across it would be beaten with something heavy; since wagon wheels have a lot of empty space, the beating would be much more likely to result in broken bones than if you beat them on something solid. But in St. Catherine's case, the story goes, when they first tried to beat her, she didn't break -- the wheel did. Because of that you can almost always pick her out in paintings, because she's depicted with a wheel or a fragment of a wheel.

Another scene found in the late medieval collection of stories about saints, The Golden Legend, gives us another popular topic for painters, the Mystic Marriage. St. Catherine has a vision of some sort and has just been baptized by a priest, with the Virgin Mary as her godmother (that's a bit of long story on its own), and then the Virgin Mary says that she lacks nothing to be proper wife:

And so our Lady led her forth unto the quire door whereas she saw our Saviour Jesu Christ with a great multitude of angels, whose beauty is impossible to be thought or written of earthly creature, of whose sight this blessed virgin was I fulfilled with so great sweetness that it cannot be expressed. To whom our blessed Lady benignly said: Most sovereign honour, joy and glory be to you, King of bliss, my Lord, my God and my son, Lo! I have brought here unto your blessed presence your humble servant and ancille Katherine, which for your love hath refused all earthly things, and hath at my sending obeyed to come hither, hoping and trusting to receive that I promised to her. Then our Blessed Lord took up, his mother and said: Mother, that which pleaseth you, pleaseth me, and your desire is mine, for I desire that she be knit to me by marriage among all the virgins of the earth. And said to her Katherine, come hither to me. And as soon as she heard him name her name, so great a sweetness entered into her soul that she was all ravished, and therewith our Lord gave to her a new strength which passed nature, and said to her: Come my spouse, and give to me your hand. And there our Lord espoused her in joining himself to her by spiritual marriage, promising ever to keep her in all her life in this world, and after this life to reign perpetually in his bliss, and in token of this set a ring on her finger, which he commanded her to keep in remembrance of this, and said: Dread ye not, my dear spouse, I shall not depart from you, but always comfort and strengthen you. Then said this new spouse: O blessed Lord, I thank you with all mine heart of all your great mercies, beseeching you to make me digne and worthy to be thy servant and handmaid, and to please you whom my heart loveth and desireth above all things. And thus this glorious marriage was made, whereof all the celestial court joyed and sang this verse in heaven: Sponsus amat sponsam, salvator visitat illam, with so great melody that no heart may express ne think it.

The story is a literalization of the notion that the consecrated virgin is Spouse of Christ; but the Vision of Mystic Marriage is most closely associated with virgins who are martyrs or confessors, or who undergo extraordinary mortifications, since such women are especially united to the passion of Christ. In St. Catherine's case, of course, she was a martyr. Having such a vision is not a particularly uncommon religious experience, in fact -- there are literal dozens of cases in the calendar of saints, including a fairly well attested one by different St. Catherine, St. Catherine of Siena -- but the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria seems to serve as the general template for the depiction of such things in art, and probably also for how the experience is interpreted.

Topsy-Turveydom of Poetry

All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry. If we paused for a moment to examine the cheapest cant phrases that pass our lips every day we should find that they were as rich and suggestive as so many sonnets. To take a single instance: we speak of a man in English social relations 'breaking the ice.' If this were expanded into a sonnet we should have before us a dark and sublime picture of an ocean of everlasting ice, the sombre and baffling mirror of the northern nature, over which men walked and danced and skated easily, but under which the living waters roared and toiled fathoms below. The world of slang is a kind of topsy-turveydom of poetry, full of blue moons and white elephants, of men losing their heads, and men whose tongues run away with them-a whole chaos of fairy tales.

G. K. Chesterton, "A Defence of Slang" in The Defendant

The Form of Traditional Consensus Gentium Arguments (II)

To add to the point about the (or at least the major) form of traditional consensus gentium arguments involving a step concerned with what is appropriate or natural to a rational being, here is a summary of it by George Hayward Joyce, SJ, from his Principles of Natural Theology (1922):

Argument from universal consent. The present argument may be said to be independent of any special system of thought. It has been employed by those whose philosophical positions are widely different. It rests simply on the principle that man's intellect is fundamentally trustworthy: that, though frequently misled in this or that particular case through accidental causes, yet the instrument itself is sound: that, of its own nature, it leads, not to error, but to truth. It follows from this, that if the human race, taken as a whole, agrees in regarding a given conclusion as certain, it is impossible to suppose that that conclusion is false. Could a general conviction of this kind be mistaken, it would argue that something is amiss with the faculty itself: that it is idle for man to search for truth, since the very organ of truth is fallacious. Pure scepticism would be the sole logical attitude. In point of fact, man cannot use his intellect without recognizing its trustworthiness. It is its own sufficient guarantee. When we judge, we do not judge blindly: we see that our judgment is true. This being premised, we urge that there is a veritable consensus among men that God exists. All races, civilized and uncivilized alike, are at one in holding that the facts of nature and the voice of conscience compel us to affirm this as certain truth. We do not, of course, mean that none are found to deny it. There is no proposition which some will not be found to question. The pragmatist denies the necessity even of the principle of contradiction. But we contend that those who admit the existence of God form so overwhelming a majority, that agnostics and atheists do not affect the moral unanimity of the race. If, then, the judgment of all mankind cannot be mistaken, we have here yet another valid proof of the existence of God.

Note two key points: the nature of human reason shows up explicitly as essential to the argument, and the claim for universality is that of "the moral unanimity of the race", not the bare agreement of everyone without exception. Walter O'Briant claims in a 1985 article that this is a divergence from the historical tradition, but provides no actual evidence of this: the people he considers as having discussed it are Plato (the Laws passage), Mill, Hume, Herbert of Cherbury, and John Calvin. Of these, Calvin certainly would have known that some people claim that God does not exist; O'Briant criticizes Mill for not getting the argument right, either (and Mill's interpretation would also have avoided the universality problem, since Mill took it as an argument to the authority of mankind generally, especially of its wisest members, which does not require that everyone without exception agree); Hume explicitly qualifies 'universal' with 'almost'; and Herbert of Cherbury is not discussed in sufficient detail to establish that he does commit to strict universality. Thus O'Briant doesn't really seem to have a case that Joyce is wrong here.

O'Briant also argues that Joyce, despite not holding to strict universality, needs it:

Joyce is hung on a dilemma of his own creation. If he uses the notion of consensus as involving merely proportionate agreement, then the belief in the existence of God becomes something about which the human intellect may in particular cases be misled. If he uses the notion of consensus as a universal agreement in P2 [There is a veritable consensus among men that God exists] , then he must deny that there can be atheists or agnostics. [Walter H. O'Briant, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 18, No. 1/2 (1985), pp. 73-79]

But there is no real dilemma here; Joyce's argument is that those who are theists of some kind form such an overwhelming majority that 'human intellect may in particular cases be misled' cannot be an adequate explanation of the fact, although it can be an adequate explanation of the small number of atheists. (It's another question whether agnostics should be brought in at all here, since, despite the tendency to lump atheists and agnostics together, the intellectual stances are rather different.) O'Briant seems to think that "the human race, taken as a whole" requires "every human being" rather than "the human race on the whole" -- but it is clear that Joyce is explicitly arguing that the latter tells us something about the nature of human reason, and this is at least not an implausible claim. If it's true, though, then, Joyce can take the first horn of the dilemma without any problem: the argument is entirely consistent with atheists being the particular cases of error, while the general and normal operation of reason shows that these are, in fact, errors arising through accidental causes rather than through reason itself. There are questions one could certainly raise about this argument, but the universality problem is not a serious issue here. (O'Briant does hold, it should be said, that while the argument fails as a proof, it is a reason to take the existence of God as prima facie plausible -- and if he had stuck with just criticizing Joyce on the strength of the conclusion he thinks Joyce can get, instead of arguing that he is hung on a dilemma involving universality, he would have been on much stronger ground.)

It's worthwhile to compare in this regard another kind of consensus gentium argument that does not deal with the existence of God -- the consensus gentium argument that some things really are morally right or morally wrong. This argument does not require that there be no skeptics about morality or psychopaths; it just requires us to hold that the human race, generally speaking, is rational, and that human reason is basically trustworthy, and therefore that if there are people who diverge from a very solid consensus on this point, it is not due to superior reasoning but due to some cause of error.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Oh! let no time be lost"

In his review of Jane Austen's juvenilia, Chesterton marks out the door-knock scene from the fifth letter of Love and Friendship as one of the especially humorous parts of the work. And it is indeed excellent in every way. Here it is:

One Evening in December, as my Father, my Mother, and myself were arranged in social converse round our Fireside, we were, on a sudden, greatly astonished by hearing a violent knocking on the outward Door of our rustic Cot.

My Father started -- "What noise is that," (said he). "It sounds like a loud rapping at the door" -- (replied my Mother). "It does indeed," (cried I). "I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door." "Yes (exclaimed I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance."

"That is another point (replied he); We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock -- tho' that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced."

Here, a second tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech, and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me.

"Had we not better go and see who it is? (said she) The servants are out." "I think we had," (replied I).

"Certainly, (added my Father) by all means." "Shall we go now?" (said my Mother). "The sooner the better," (answered he). "Oh! let no time be lost" (cried I).

A third, more violent Rap than ever, again assaulted our ears. "I am certain there is somebody knocking at the Door," (said my Mother). "I think there must," (replied my Father). "I fancy the servants are returned; (said I) I think I hear Mary going to the Door." "I'm glad of it (cried my Father) for I long to know who it is."

Jane Austen, the first writer for Monty Python.

The Form of Traditional Consensus Gentium Arguments

Joshua Rollins on traditional consensus gentium arguments:

Here is the argument's basic form:

(UA) Belief in God is (nearly) universal.
For any given proposition P, if belief in P is (nearly) universal, P must be true (i.e,, P must obtain).
So, if belief in God is (nearly) universal, God must exist.

∴ God must exist.

The traditional formulation is perhaps the most well-known version of the common consent argument. Versions of the traditional formulation appear in Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods (book 1, section 17) and Plato's Laws (book X, 886).

I think we need to be careful about assuming that Plato's argument in Laws X is actually in this family of argument; the point being addressed in context is whether it is easy to show that gods exists, and Clinias says that it is, for two reasons: (1) the order of the world makes it obvious to the senses; and (2) Greeks and barbarians alike already accept the existence of gods. It's possible to read this as two arguments for the existence of gods; it's also possible to read it as an argument for the existence of gods and an argument that you hardly even need that; and it's also possible to read it as an argument that it's easy to show, or perhaps that it's the sort of thing that one need not worry about accepting. The Athenian agrees, but goes on to say that there are people whose corruption of mind Clinias has hardly begun to grasp. Thus one could well interpret it as just saying that since lots of people regardless of society agree that gods exist, there's not much need in the context of law to worry about defending it -- if we take that interpretation, the Athenian rejects it in the dialogue on the grounds that it underestimates how perverse atheists are, but it is in any case not in the particular family of argument identified by Rollins.

Cicero, who is presenting what he regards as Epicurus's argument, does put forward something roughly like this, but it's not the mere fact of universality that is doing the work in the Epicurean argument: it's that it is such as to suggest that the belief is not purely dependent on education and custom, and thus that it is implanted or innate in us. Then this, the claim about its entanglement with human reason, is what yields the conclusion. Cicero later in the work (book II, section 2) has his Stoic philosopher note the resilience of the belief as a confirmation: time destroys error and fiction, but belief in the gods is quite stable and resistant to change among populations. The argument too seems to be a somewhat different argument from what Rollins has in mind; for instance, this form of argument does not fall victim to the criticisms that Rollins goes on to give of the traditional argument. For instance, Rollins says, " traditionalists fallaciously presuppose that (near) consensus on any given proposition P provides proof that P is true". This is certainly false of the argument as we find it in Cicero.

It's worth noting that neither the argument as we find it in Plato (regardless of the interpretation we take) or as we find it in Cicero has any problem with the first difficulty Rollins notes: "it's highly unlikely that belief in God (or gods) was ever universal, or even nearly so". The Ciceronian version does not depend on universality, but on naturalness. And the Platonic version is presented explicitly in a context in which everyone recognizes that there are atheists -- it's just not relevant to the point at hand, which is whether atheism is a serious enough issue to address directly. And we also have to keep in mind that ancient and medieval philosophers tend not to be very strict about universality in general -- they don't treat occasional exceptions as counterexamples to universal statements as long as the exceptions can be explained by some kind of impeding or defective cause. (Their universals tend to be 'Aristotelian universals', as we call them now.) That nature occasionally produces freaks of nature, the odd lusus naturae, some preternatural phenomenon or out-of-the-ordinary monster, was an extremely common view.

I think, if we are going to talk about 'traditional formulations' of consensus gentium arguments, we should take the Ciceronian argument seriously and hold that they involve an intermediate step to what is natural or fitting to a rational creature.


St. Clement of Rome is celebrated on November 23 in the Roman calendar, on November 24 in Greek Orthodox and most Eastern Catholic calendars, and November 25 in the Russian Orthodox and Coptic calendars (although some of these celebrate according to the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, which would put the day in December according to the Gregorian calendar). I had intended to put something up about him yesterday, but forgot; but since today is also the feast of Clement, as is tomorrow, I figure I have some leeway.

In papal lists he is sometimes placed second after Peter, sometimes third after Linus, and sometimes fourth after Linus and Anacletus; according to Tertullian, at least, Peter consecrated all three men as bishops to care for the community or communities at Rome so that he could devote himself to preaching, and Clement was the one with the most responsibility while Peter was alive. In any case, the papal lists usually follow St. Irenaeus, and that list puts the order as Peter, Linus, Anacletus, Clement. From his letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 38):

Let our whole body, then, be preserved in Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbour, according to the special gift bestowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He has given him one by whom his need may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by [mere] words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another. Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing that it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence. Let us consider, then, brethren, of what matter we were made, -- who and what manner of beings we came into the world, as it were out of a sepulchre, and from utter darkness. He who made us and fashioned us, having prepared His bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into His world. Since, therefore, we receive all these things from Him, we ought for everything to give Him thanks; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

First Clement, as it is usually called, was one of the candidates for books to be part of the New Testament; this seems to have arisen because the Corinthians began to read it in their churches after having received it from Clement, and the practice spread to other churches influenced by the Corinthians. Evidence of its authenticity is quite good. The best estimates for the date it was written place it in the last decade of the first century, making it roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation.

According to a (very late) legend he was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea, so the symbol associated with him is the anchored cross, also known as a St. Clement's Cross. He is sometimes identified with the Clement of Philippians 4:3, and very often with the Clement mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas. He is also sometimes said to have been a freed slave. While the testimony that he was a contemporary of the apostles is universal, what we know about his life is practically nil, beyond what we can glean from his one surviving authentic text and his appearance on the succession lists for the episcopate of Rome.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Belief and Hypothesis

There has been a correspondence in The Times about the nature of belief, or unbelief, or incidentally of make-believe. This was enriched by a somewhat pompous letter from a very superior person, who said he was entirely Modern; and proceeded to set forth as much as he could understand of the early sceptical sages of ancient Hellas, to whom I have referred; and proceeded to adorn the theme with things so exclusively modern as the exact meaning of dialectic in the dialogues of Plato. But his scepticism was much more archaic than Plato; indeed it was the sort of nihilistic nonsense that Socrates existed largely in order to chaff out of existence. The form it took here was the repeated suggestion that a Modern person cannot believe in anything except as a hypothesis. In other words, that he cannot believe in anything at all. For you cannot believe in a hypothesis; you can only give it a fair chance to prove itself a thesis that can be believed.

G. K. Chesterton, "About Relativity" in As I Was Saying

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Interrogative Interpretation of Abductive Inference

Peirce famously suggested that besides the common forms of inference, induction and deduction, there is also a third, as important, which he called abduction. One of his major motivations was an analogy with figures of the syllogism -- there are three original figures of syllogism (the Fourth is a later addition not original to Aristotle's scheme). In this analogy, deduction seemed to correspond to the First Figure and induction to correspond to the Third Figure, which left the question -- what corresponds to the Second Figure? The most famous version of this scheme of figures of reasoning is the one in which Peirce compares the forms of inference in terms of how they handle the Rule, the Case, and the Result:

Rule: All the beans in this bag are white.
Case: These beans are from this bag.
Result: These beans are white.

Rule: All the beans in this bag are white.
Result: These beans are white.
Case: These beans are from this bag.

Case: These beans are from this bag.
Result: These beans are white.
Rule: All the beans in this bag are white.

The pattern of terms in the figures of the syllogism are clearly maintained here.

But there have always been puzzles and peculiarities with how abduction actually can work. It doesn't seem to be truth-preserving, for instance. At times Peirce seems to characterize it as the rational form of guessing. Sometimes it sounds like pattern-recognition. At other times he treats it like idea-construction. He often suggested that abduction is hypothesis-making (one then uses deduction to get consequences which are tested by induction). Peirce also seems to have gone back and forth on how exactly to distinguish abduction from induction, and to have stepped away, over time, from the syllogistic analogy.

I mentioned that abduction as Peirce conceives it can't be truth-preserving: given true premises, there is no guarantee that the conclusion is true. But it is very clear that abduction as Peirce conceives has to be possibility-preserving: as long as the premises are possible (or perhaps true), they establish that the conclusion is possible. This is something that I've thought about for quite some time.*

In the recent IEP article on Peirce's Logic, Bellucci and Pietarinen note a recently discovered interpretation of abduction in a letter to Lady Welby that gives a rather different account of abduction than the standard versions.** The contrast is with modus tollens:

Modus Tollens
If A is true, C {is/is not} true.
C {is not/is} true.
Therefore A is not true.

If A is true, C {is/is not} true.
C {is/is not} true.
Therefore is A not true?

The conclusion, in other words is in 'interrogative mood', or more precisely, is equivalent to: It is to be inquired whether A is not true.

This is, I believe, closely related to the point I made above about possibility-preservation, with a particular interpretation of possibility, the one that Peirce saw as most relevant. One way to put it: if we take Diamond or weak modality to posit something for investigation or inquiry, then from the premises, an abductive inference gives us a proposition whose truth value is Diamond (interpreted as positing for investigation) rather than True.

The 'positing for investigation' is actually quite substantive, as Peirce understands it; it means that we have reason to invest resources into the inquiry -- which is indeed about what we usually mean when we say something is a possible topic for inquiry, since we don't ever take this kind of possibility to be the bare abstract possibility of being something into which some possible inquirer could possibly inquire under some possible circumstances.

* It shows up, for instance, in a Dashed Off post in July 2011. Dashed Off posts usually lag behind the original jotting of the notes by six months to a year and a half (although I sometimes clean up the notes when putting them in posts), so this is probably something I started thinking about explicitly by early 2011 at the latest.

** But looking back I see that I was aware of it several years ago; in a Dashed Off post I recorded some jotted-down notes on how abduction might be understood:

abduction as recognition of phenomena as an icon of a symbol (a likeness of a general conception) (Peirce EP 2:287)

abduction leading to conclusions in interrogative mood

abduction as concerned with economy of money, time, thought, and energy (Peirce CP 5.600)

abduction : inference through icon :: induction : inference through index :: deduction : inference through symbol

abduction as divine: NEM 3.206; CP 8.212; CP 6.476-477 MS 843.7
(cp Peirce on agapistic evolution)

abduction as guided by the notion of good

The second note explicitly identifies the interrogative mood interpretation, and the third recognizes the 'worth-the-expense' aspect of Peirce's understanding of the 'interrogative mood'. Again, there's a lag between the original notes and the Dashed Off posts, and the lags have tended to grow longer in the past few years, so this probably goes back to 2012.

This is a reason why it's handy to take notes; I would not have remembered coming across the interrogative interpretation at all. It also provides a reminder that our inquiries, if they are extensive, are often so complex that we cannot trace through everything that has been involved in them. The notes themselves are just quick snapshots; they don't record everything that was going on in my mind, and, indeed, I don't know at all what I thought about the interrogative interpretation at the time. But even so, they show that my bits-and-pieces studies of Peirce has covered ground I don't even remember covering. Peirce, I think, would be pleased at both the example and its moral.

Maronite Year IV

The Season of Announcement, the first part of the Season of the Nativity, continues with the Sunday of the Announcement to the Virgin Mary. The Second Sunday of Announcement is one of the two feasts dedicated to the Annunciation in the calendar, the other being the Feast of the Annunciation itself.

Sunday of the Announcement to the Virgin Mary
Galatians 3:15-22; Luke 1:26-38

O Isaiah, what are you saying?
A princely son is given us,
peerless counselor, mighty God,
the Father of the world to come,
and Prince of Peace of endless dominion!

God gave His promise to Abraham,
and to Abraham's Descendant;
Torah does not undo promise
but prepares the way for the faith,
which alone imparts peace and blessing.

To Nazareth did Gabriel go:
"Peace, Mary, maiden graceful-made,
blessed are you among women!
Fear not! God is gracious to you:
you shall conceive a Son, Jesus!"

Then Mary was with great wonder filled:
"I am but a girl, a maiden;
how can I bear, whom none have known?"
"O Mary, the Holy Spirit
overshadows you with great power!

"This holy offspring of your womb
shall be known as the Son of God!
With God all things are possible."
Then Mary said, "Let it be so;
I am the handmaiden of the Lord."

Thus Mary took peace from God Most High;
thus Mary gave peace to us all;
thus Mary restored Eve's children;
thus Mary gave the Descendant
who rules with the glorious promise.

With Mary we are with wonder filled!
We hide behind holy incense,
cover our heads with our prayers,
so great your peace is upon us;
we are your servants, O mighty Lord.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Born, Not Made

A very real psychological interest, almost amounting to a psychological mystery, attaches to any early work of Jane Austen. And for that one reason, among others, which has hardly been sufficiently emphasised. Great as she was, nobody was likely to maintain that she was a poet. But she was a marked example of what is said of the poet; she was born, not made. As compared with her, indeed, some of the poets really were made. Many men who had the air of setting the world on fire have left at least a reasonable discussion about what set them on fire. Men like Coleridge or Carlyle had certainly kindled their first torches from the flambeaux of equally fantastic German mystics or Platonic speculators; they had gone through furnaces of culture where even less creative people might have been inflamed to creation. Jane Austen was not inflamed or inspired or even moved to be a genius; she simply was a genius.

G. K. Chesterton, "Jane Austen's Juvenilia" in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks

Various Jottings on Applied Ethics and Refugees

* I tend not to like teaching what goes by the label 'applied ethics' in my Ethics courses. For one reason, the label is a bit absurd, since if you are teaching ethics with any intelligence at all, it is all applied, by the very fact that it is ethics. Unapplied ethics is nothing but useless words, which is an irony given that 'applied ethics' is usually just a bunch of arguments and not any actual application itself. What people usually mean by 'applied ethics' is 'discussion of topics that are politically controversial, or that one wishes to be politically controversial'.

What is more, this discussion tends to be removed from reality, and involves teaching rather complicated and strained arguments on matters in which the real-life arguments, the ones that cause the controversy in the first place, are relatively straightforward. This is inevitable. People tend to be intellectually timid and, under the hypocritical masks of intellectual humility or of being nice or of being righteous already, or by feigning relativism (since many relativist responses in real argument are feigned as an attempt to avoid having to argue), or with a scorched-earth obnoxiousness, or simply through uncooperative silence, will in real life try to shut down rational disputation. (We all have a tendency to all of these things, and lapsing into them occasionally is merely human. But (1) what is important here is how this works out on a large scale rather than in individual cases, and (2) I think it can be argued that modern societies in particular tend to reward intellectual cowardice in the face of argument.) They will not trust complicated arguments in matters of controversy, so widely controversial matters will tend in reality to involve relatively simple points of contention; and using more complicated arguments in the course of such controversies without suffering retaliation for the mere fact of doing so is an art-form that most people do not learn and that no one learns perfectly. The evidence for both these points litters every discussion of a controversial ethical matter one ever finds. But people who teach ethics classes tend to shut down the crude, simple arguments of real life, failing to take into account properly whether the arguments might be good as first approximations or crude summations of serious ethical reflection, or, perhaps more egregiously, whether the arguments might suffer from the fact that ethical vocabulary in controversial matters tends easily to be become confused and confusing.

And this is not even getting into the fact, of course, that most people who think they are teaching controversial topics fairly, and without any hint of persuasion tactics that do not depend on the quality of arguments, are often kidding themselves.

* Some of the things that one might discuss under the label 'applied ethics' inevitably come up in ethical discussions. But there is a good reason for not treating them as stand-alone. And there are kinds of topics that should come up (and will in any properly run ethics course) that wouldn't usually be discussed in such courses, but would make more sense to discuss than many of the things that do. For instance, one of the things that happens to come up when I briefly look at ethics in business contexts is the notion of time-theft. Students always take the idea for granted; but as I point out, it's very difficult to make sense of the idea if you are utilitarian, Kantian, or an Aristotelian virtue ethicist, and they have difficulty defending the notion at all, despite almost all of them thinking it's a genuine ethical issue. (The discussion is always very fun for me, although occasionally frustrating for the students. I always ask, for instance, why 'time-theft' doesn't imply that employment is a form of slavery, in which you are selling yourself for a period of time, and the only answer that they can usually come up with is that people could just not be employed if they have a problem with it.) Here is a notion explicitly purporting to be a matter of ethics that people regularly come into contact with, and almost nobody ever examines it in an ethics class. There are lots of such things floating around. People don't know much about civil service, despite its being by its very nature an ethical reform of government; and say astounding things about medical triage, an ethical term that is regularly twisted for implications that are exactly opposite of what the whole purpose of the idea originally was; and put great weight on not harming people without putting much time or thought into how one determines what is harmful; and attribute to mere consent powers that verge on superstitious. And one doesn't even have to get into any kind of definite controversy: how much have most people thought about topics like forgiveness or mercy or patience or thoughtfulness to others or niceness or hospitality, despite the fact that these things are day to day realities of living an ethical life, involving ideas everyone uses?

* [ADDED LATER] Historically in aesthetics, people tend to focus on the beautiful and the sublime, although occasional other concepts, like the picturesque or the suspenseful, have become topics of interest. But there has been a recent move toward looking more closely at 'everyday aesthetics' and the concepts involved -- which will, of course, include the beautiful, etc., at times, but also includes things like the cute or the tidy -- which are in some ways interesting on their own and sometimes intersect with the big, grand concerns in unusual ways. It seems that one could easily have an 'everyday ethics' analogous to this. Why always focus on the big, controversial issues? Why not focus occasionally on the small, homely ones? They are often as rewarding, and sometimes more illuminating.

* I find much of the discussion of the refugee crisis coming out of Syria to be a good example of the tendency of modern politics always to drive the discussion to focusing on the wrong question. The question everyone seems to ask is, "Should nations let in refugees (without such-and-such tight constraints)?" But, whatever the moral importance of this question, it is not morally the most important question. The most important question, if we are actually concerned with morality at all, is "What do the nations do with the refugees they let in?" Or, as we might well put it, the single most important idea in doing justice to refugees is not 'refugee' but 'refuge'. A refuge obviously takes in refugees; but how one manages to be a refuge is the key matter of importance, and whether one really offers a refuge at all is perhaps even more important. To take people in while offering them nothing but ghettos and welfare dependence, or economic exploitation in the ever-restless pursuit of cheap labor, or an uncertain life of unjust treatment, is not really to offer refuge at all. The question that matters most is about what kind of refuge to be.

* The more political discussions I witness the more I am convinced that serious work needs to be done on what might be called the quasi-virtue ethics of national character. National character was once a minor but seriously considered topic in ethics. Hume discusses it, for instance, and that there is such a thing falls out easily from his account of moral assessment. According to Hume, when we make a moral judgment, what we are actually doing is judging character; so if we make moral judgments about societies/peoples/communities/nations/groups, we are attributing some kind of moral character to them as societies/peoples/communities/nations/groups. And Hume thinks this notion of a unified character for a people is entirely explicable in terms of "sympathy or contagion of manners" combined with social pressure, even given the variation within the population itself. Regardless, it seems clear enough that we keep talking about nations and societies and groups of people as having particular virtue-like or vice-like character traits (compassion, hypocrisy, generosity, and so such), so this is something that should at least be examined.

Entry into the Temple

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, also known as the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. Like a significant number of Marian feasts in the Roman calendar, it is Byzantine in origin, entering the Roman calendar through the Byzantine rite churches of Southern Italy, and is first documented in the Byzantine rite in the eleventh century. The day celebrates the dedication from childhood of Mary to God. In the Protevangelium of James, a very early Christian legendarium compiled in the second century, the parents of Mary, Joachim and Anne, took her to the temple at the age of three to dedicate her to God, because they had thought that they would not be able to have any children.

The following is, I believe, the earliest extant audio recording of any Pope, Pope Leo XIII praying the Ave Maria in 1903, shortly before his death:

Leo XIII, of course, was a major advocate of Marian devotion, particularly of the rosary and the scapular, so it seems fitting to post his recorded Marian prayer on this Marian holiday.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Three Mystery Comedies

I've been grading, grading, grading recently, and in the course of doing it I have watched three classic mystery comedies: A Shot in the Dark (1964), Murder by Death (1976), and Clue (1985), each of which is at least a reasonable candidate for being the best mystery comedy of its decade. I thought I might say a few things about each one, in light of having watched all three in close succession.

Of the three, A Shot in the Dark is arguably the one that works best as a comedy, and it is easy enough to see why. Peter Sellers plays Inspector Clouseau, his best and most popular comic character, in the middle of an excellent cast including Burt Kwouk (Kato/Cato), Herbert Lom (Inspector Dreyfus), Elke Sommer (Maria Gambrelli), and Graham Stark (Hercule LaJoy), all in their top game. The movie is unusually rich as a comedy, being an originally independent comic script that was merged with Inspector Clouseau (because that was the condition for getting Peter Sellers in the movie) and is filled with improvisation (perhaps the best example of which is the watch synchronization theme, which was almost entirely improvised by Sellers and Stark). There are very obvious jokes, but there are also very subtle ones, and almost every character gets a genuine comic moment. As a mystery it is organized by the idea that all the evidence points to a particular suspect; but Inspector Clouseau is in love with her and therefore keeps investigating well beyond the point that anybody else would have taken her guilt to be obvious. We aren't really trying to figure how the crime happened; we're trying to figure out how Inspector Clouseau will wrap it up. The mystery is just a vehicle for the comedy. And, notably, the mystery itself is never treated as a joke.

Murder by Death, on the other hand, is entirely about mystery, since it is nothing other than a spoofing of the genre. It is easily the one that has the most all-star cast (which is extraordinary, when you consider the casts of the other two): Truman Capote (Lionel Twain), Alec Guinness (Jamesir Bensonmum, the blind butler), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Richard Narita (Willie Wang), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), James Coco (Milo Perrier), James Cromwell (Marcel Cassette, his very first movie role), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Eileen Brennan (Tess Skeffington), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), Estelle Winwood (Miss Withers, her last movie role at the age of 92), Nancy Walker (Yetta, the deaf-mute cook, also her last movie role). The screaming doorbell is no less than Fay Wray's screams from King Kong and the art of the opening was drawn by Charles Addams. The villain/victim of the piece, Lionel Twain, has invited several world-famous detectives to dinner and a murder: Sidney Wang (a spoof of Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan), Sam Diamond (a spoof of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade), Dick and Dora Charleston (a spoof of Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles), Milo Perrier (a spoof of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot), and Jessica Marbles (a spoof of Christie's Jane Marple). Each of the detectives does things and makes deductions that are simply impossible -- perhaps the best is Wang's unexplained detection of the colorless, odorless, tasteless poison in the food -- and the mystery undergoes increasingly improbable and ludicrous twists and endless red herring trails. There are constant in-jokes for anyone who has read a lot of Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie. For all that, the movie actually avoids doing any of the bad-mystery-plot things it satirizes when it comes to its own mystery plot: every major element of the solution is set up in the story leading up to it -- you'll just never see the set-up except in hindsight because there are so many other things happening.

The humor is often a bit coarse, and the jokes a bit thick. Peter Sellers actually thought it was going to flop badly, so insisted on buying back his share in the profits -- which turned out to be a mistake, because it actually became a hit and cult classic.

Of the three, Clue is the most fun as a movie, and the one that most tries to give the feel of a real mystery despite being a comedy (although it makes much less of an effort to be consistent than Murder by Death does). In some ways it is weakest as a comedy, being almost all screwball and slapstick, although it still manages to be funny. It too has an excellent cast: Tim Curry (Wadsworth the butler), Eileen Brennan (Mrs. Peacock), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. White), Christopher Lloyd (Professor Plum), Michael McKean (Mr. Green), Martin Mull (Colonel Mustard), Lesley Ann Warren (Miss Scarlet), and Colleen Camp (Yvette the maid). The movie succeeds mostly by everyone making a real contribution to the zaniness. It also makes neat use of multiple possible endings: when it was originally shown in theaters, the movie was shown with one of three different endings, all of which began to be shown sequentially for TV and video. All three of the endings cheat, however, by changing details or remembering things that never happened, making the movie's plot exactly the kind of story mocked in Murder by Death. But, interestingly, I think that Clue ends up being a funnier movie overall than Murder by Death, despite the fact that the latter is in many ways technically superior.

Of the three, A Shot in the Dark is the only one that gives a story contemporaneous with its original audience, Murder by Death gives (apparently deliberately) very inconsistent signals as to what time it takes place in, and Clue sets itself thirty years in the past. Clue is the only one that places itself on a specific date: June 9, 1954. (All the McCarthy and Communism references in the film converge on this date, although it only explicitly states that it occurs in 1954.) A Shot in the Dark is the only one that gives itself a specific city (Paris); given its geographical hints, Clue has to take place somewhere in Connecticut or Massachusetts, although it never explicitly tells us more than that it occurs in New England. Murder by Death was the most financially successful in theaters; Clue performed very weakly at the box office, only becoming popular when it hit TV.

Seeing all three together brings out different features of each. There are, of course, the two overlaps in casting (Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark and Murder by Death, and Eileen Brennan in Murder by Death and Clue, although in both cases the characters are very different). Both A Shot in the Dark and Clue have an occasionally similar feel on the comedy side, since they both make extensive use of physical comedy, of which Murder by Death has relatively little. But Murder by Death and Clue have a large number of structural similarities: they both are whodunits involving a number of people drawn to a mansion by mysterious invitations; in both a murder happens and it has to be solved on the premises; both are much more ensemble-cast in their feel and rely heavily on character humor; and they both compensate for the ensemble structure by pairing characters off.

One of the things that was very noticeable was the sexual humor; all three have a lot of it. The movie with the most sexual humor, surprisingly, is Clue, in which it is almost nonstop. I say 'surprisingly' because you could easily miss it: Clue has many more sex jokes than the other two, but both of the other movies go much farther with their sexual humor -- Clue is constantly cracking wise about sex, but it always raises the joke only to drop it and move on to something else. Both A Shot in the Dark and Murder by Death, on the other hand, draw out their sexual humor extensively and call attention to it. But, of course, in many ways all three are relatively tame compared to fare served today.