Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Music on My Mind

Dion, "The Thunderer". Feast of St. Jerome, of course.

Bentham and Mill on Judging One's Own Happiness

I have seen recently an upsurge in people exalting Bentham at the expense of Mill; I'm not sure the reason. Certainly it is a matter that is generally of little significance. Mill is so much the superior of Bentham on nearly every count that no one could seriously begrudge Bentham a count or two in which he overtops Mill. But there is a real danger in such cases of not capturing Mill's view fairly in an attempt to improve Bentham in the comparison. An example of this, I think, is a claim in Robert Wolff's recent eulogy of Bentham:

Indeed, Bentham's principle, as he quite well intended, constituted a very powerful argument for democratic government resting on universal suffrage. [Strictly speaking, to get to that conclusion required adding the lemma that each person is the best judge of his or her own pain and pleasure, an assumption with which Bentham was comfortable but that proved a bridge too far for his godson John Stuart Mill.]

But it is certainly a bridge Mill himself passes over. Mill gives exactly this argument in the first chapter of The Subjection of Women, which is, notably, an argument for universal suffrage:

I have dwelt so much on the difficulties which at present obstruct any real knowledge by men of the true nature of women, because in this as in so many other things "opinio copiae inter maximas causas inopiae est"; and there is little chance of reasonable thinking on the matter while people flatter themselves that they perfectly understand a subject of which most men know absolutely nothing, and of which it is at present impossible that any man, or all men taken together, should have knowledge which can qualify them to lay down the law to women as to what is, or is not, their vocation. Happily, no such knowledge is necessary for any practical purpose connected with the position of women is relation to society and life. For, according to all the principles involved in modern society, the question rests with women themselves — to be decided by their own experience, and by the use of their own faculties. There are no means of finding what either one person or many can do, but by trying — and no means by which anyone else can discover for them what it is for their happiness to do or leave undone.

To a very great degree, what separates Bentham and Mill is not so much the radicalness of their views at the individual level but the differences in the way they think we should assess happiness from the impartial point of view. This is as one might expect given that the real importance in utilitarianism is placed not on who is the best judge of an individual's happiness but in how one makes the judgment of what contributes to, or is required for, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Mill puts a considerable emphasis on the need for utilitarian judgments to go beyond what must or ought to be done (in Mill's account our assessment of good advice and of good art are also to be utilitarian) and also to take into account connoisseurship of pleasure. This does give Mill's account a less democratic 'feel' than Bentham's -- but it's not, I think, because Mill is less of a democrat at the individual level than Bentham.

Monday, September 29, 2014

D. G. Myers

I was saddened to learn that D. G. Myers has recently died. He wrote at "A Commonplace Blog" and has an excellent book on the history of creative writing programs (which I have on my shelves and have read more than once), The Elephants Teach.

You can listen to David talk about dealing with cancer at EconTalk:

D.G. Myers, literary critic and cancer patient, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the lessons he has learned from receiving a cancer diagnosis six years ago. Myers emphasizes the importance of dealing with cancer honestly and using it as a way to focus attention on what matters in life. The conversation illuminates the essence of opportunity cost and the importance of allocating our time, perhaps our scarcest resource, wisely. The last part of the conversation discusses a number of literary issues including the role of English literature and creative writing in American universities.

And you can also read a reflection on the subject from June of this year, The Mercy of Sickness Before Dying.

David had a knack for finding the complacent certainties people had about literature and pressing on them -- sometimes hard -- with a bit of critical thought. I've linked to a number of his discussions over the years. Some of my favorites:

Plot and Thought
Influence and Literary History
On Satire
Jewish sin and repentance
Literary Fiction: An Autopsy
Reading the Holocaust

Xenophon's Cyropaedia (Books I-IV)

The Cyropaedia is probably the non-Socratic Xenophontic work that has been most popular through the ages. It asks the question: What must a ruler do to make the ruled want to be ruled? It answers the question by purporting to give an account of the education and rise to power of Cyrus the Great, king of the Medes and Persians. Significant parts of the work are highly fictionalized, and fictionalized in a way that Xenophon must surely have done deliberately, so the work seems not to be intended as a historical work. It is a matter of considerable dispute, however, whether it fits any other genre or is sui generis. This has made interpretation of the work somewhat difficult. It seems clear that he used no documentary sources, but we don't know how much of this is Xenophon giving us oral legends about Cyrus and how much of it is Xenophon making up Cyrus in the form suitable to the question. We don't even know for sure what the title of the book would have been originally; it is given several different names in antiquity (Life of Cyrus, and so forth). The title it is usually known by today, Kyrou paideia (Cyrus's Education), seems to be due to Aulus Gellius. (Cyropaedia is the latinization.) Another puzzle people have had is the fact that most of the book lauds Cyrus in the highest terms, but the book ends in a way that raises questions about Cyrus's achievement. Some people have even suggested that the last book may not be by Xenophon, although this is the only serious argument for such a conclusion. My suspicion, though, is that many of the puzzles of interpretation can be resolved by keeping clear about what Xenophon's question is. It is not, "How does one make a just society?" nor even (contrary to the way it is often stated) "How does one make a stable society?" The question is, "How does one make a society in which people don't want to change the government?" And Cyrus shows us, roughly, that the key is for the ruler to seem unquestionably powerful and be good at giving benefits to people that they cannot otherwise get. Nothing about this requires that Xenophon admire everything about such a ruler, even if he does admire the excellence with which Cyrus meets these goals of appearing powerful and beneficial.

Even though this work is a non-Socratic work, it seems everywhere to suggest the influence of Socrates: everyone talks in a Socratic way, and some of Cyrus's excellences are clearly understood in Socratic terms. And there seem to be a number of ways in which Xenophon deliberately adjusts Cyrus to give him a Socratic hue.

You can read the Cyropaedia online in English at the Perseus Project. There is an online collaborative commentary on the work called Cyrus' Paradise, which has a number of interesting discussions.

Book I

Book I sets the theme of the work and gives us the first basic education of Cyrus. Xenophon begins by noting that all sorts of governments are often overthrown by the people who are ruled by them, so that it seems that human beings have no art by which to rule other human beings. However, having thought of this, he also thought of Cyrus the Great, "who acquired very many people, very many cities, and very many nations, all obedient to himself" (1.1), and that the obedience was given despite vast distances and differences in language and culture. So what is the secret to a Cyrus? This is what the rest of the work will discuss.

Cyrus is said to have been the son of Cambyses, king of the Persians. He was educated in the laws of the Persians, which are very focused on what is common rather than what is individual. (Xenophon's account of Persian education is very clearly a slightly adapted account of Spartan education.) Cyrus only had this education until he was about twelve; at that age his grandfather on his mother's side, who was king of the Medes, sent for his daughter and grandson. Thus he learns the ways of the Medes, which are rather different. As Cyrus's mother, Mandane, puts it, in Persia being equal is what is accounted just, and the law rules the king, whereas in Media the king is master of all and ruled by no law. Because Cyrus loved to learn, he grew adept in the ways of the Medes. Then he returned, before fully adult, to Persia. Soon his grandfather in Media died, and was succeeded by Cyrus's uncle Cyaxares. At this point, the king of Assyria, seeing a possible opportunity, began to plan to defeat the Medes, and to that end started building an alliance. Cyaxares sent to Persia for help, and so Cyrus found himself in Media again, at the head of an army. After taking thought to the gods and offering sacrifices, he receives some advice from his father about caution and preparation. His father also gives him advice as to how to make soldiers obey. After Cyrus remarks on the importance of praising those who obey and punishing those who disobey, Cambyses says:

"Yes, son, this is indeed the road to their obeying by compulsion, but to what is far superior to this, to their being willing to obey, there is another road that is shorter, for human beings obey with great pleasure whomever they think is more prudent about their own advantage than they are themselves....Yet whenever people think that they will incur any harm by obeying, they are not very willing either to yield to punishments or to be seduced by gifts, for no one is willing to receive even gifts when they bring him harm." (1.6)

Being prudent about advantage, however, can only be learned by actively learning what you can. And while it is true that always doing good for someone will tend to win them over, it is nonetheless difficult to do this. Thus a ruler must rejoice at good given to others, grieve at evils that befall them, be enthusiastic about joining them in solving their difficulties, and carefully plan to avoid failure. The ruler must have more endurance than the ruled. As to enemies, the only way to maintain power over them is to "be a plotter, a dissembler, wily, a cheat, a thief, rapacious, and the sort who takes advantage of his enemies in everything" (1.6). Cyrus notes that this is the opposite of what everyone is taught as a boy, and Cambyses notes that many of the things one learns as a boy has to do with the treatment of friends, not of enemies, for the same reason that we wait to teach boys explicitly about sex rather than doing so immediately (i.e., they do not yet have the restraint required); but in fact, boys are also taught to deal with enemies, just not by practicing on enemies. They learn to hunt, to trap, to outmaneuver, to deceive, in games and sports like the hunting of deer.

Book II

When Cyrus gets to Media he learns that the Assyrian king's alliance has grown considerably, and that the army that is coming against the Medes is huge in comparison with anything they can field. This is a problem, since both sides are heavily stocked with archers and spearmen, which suggests distance-skirmishing. But skirmishing at a distance tends to favor the more numerous army. Thus Cyrus argues that they should armor their Persian Peers, a relatively small but very well trained group, so that they can close the distance and force close quarters. This will put the opposing enemy in a bind by making it in their interest to flee rather than to continue to fight. In addition, Cyrus lets any common soldier who wishes have a chance to receive honors like those of the elite soldiers. They train in fighting at close quarters, and he holds contests for those who fight well and obey orders to receive higher rank. He forces them to bunk together so that they will see that everyone is treated equally and, in addition, will be more likely to be ashamed not to fight if they know who else is fighting. He dines not just with officers, but with anyone whom he sees as doing well what they should be doing.

After discussion with people over dinner, Cyrus decides to put it to the army whether it will be better for everyone to share equally or for those who work hardest to receive the better share. A number of people respond with speeches (including one by Pheraulas, one of the common soldiers), and the general consensus is that it is better for those who work hardest to receive more -- as Cyrus had expected, people are ashamed to suggest that they should receive an equal share even if they do less, or do their work poorly.

Cyrus proposes to Cyaxares that they should secretly go against the king of Armenia. He is not technically part of the Assyrian alliance, but as the alliance has grown he has shown an increasing tendency to show contempt for the Medes, neglecting to provide tribute or support. Under the guise of a big hunt, Cyrus goes forth with his cavalry, and at the border of Armenia he lets his officers in on the plan. He has part of the army go forward dressed as if they were bands of robbers, to reduce the chance of the Armenians having early notice of the full army and hiding away in the mountains. The robber-dressed part of the army is also there to impede the flight to the mountains should it come to that. Cyrus in the meantime will go against the Armenians directly with the main cavalry.

Book III

Cyrus sends to the Armenian king and demands that he do what needs to be done to make up for tribute and lack of military support; the Armenians, caught by surprise, are found running around pell-mell trying to hide away their possessions or get their families to safety; Cyrus promises that those who stay will not be considered enemies, but those who run away will be treated as such. In the meantime, the king's own family is caught in flight to the mountains and the king is besieged; he surrenders and is put on trial by Cyrus. The Armenian king is forced to admit that he would be harsh with any subordinate who did as he had done, but the Armenian king's son, Tigranes, argues that Cyrus should only punish when it is in his interest to punish -- and the Armenian king, having been shown that he can easily be beaten, is now more useful as an ally than as someone to be punished. Cyrus agrees, and asks the Armenian king what he will do to show himself useful. Thus Cyrus comes away with more troops for the fight and also a considerable amount of money, given to ransom the family.

Taking away the Armenian troops, led by Tigranes, Cyrus comes to the mountains on the borders of Armenia, which are controlled by the hostile Chaldaeans. They go against the Chaldaeans. Tigranes warns him that the Armenians will not press the matter all the way, but he incorporates this into his plan by telling the Persians that the Armenians will pretend to flee in order to tempt the Chaldaeans into close-quarters combat. When the Armenians do really flee, as Tigranes had said they would, the Chaldaeans pursue (as they are accustomed to doing with Armenians in the mountains) and the Persians mop them up. Cyrus then uses his leverage with the Chaldaeans, who are now worried about what Cyrus will do, to establish and force a peace treaty between the Chaldaeans and the Armenians, which will be enforced and supervised by the Persians; he is careful to make sure that each side gets something that they need, as a real practical matter, from the peace -- in particular, the Chaldaeans have a labor shortage and the Armenians a labor glut -- and also from the Persian supervision, since if the Persians hold the key points they don't have to worry about the other side using the strategic advantage to retaliate against the other side. He then uses this collaboration between Chaldaeans and Armenians to pull the Indians, who have been temporizing about who to support, on to the Persian side. Cyrus needs money, he tells them, but given that they are new-found friends, he'd rather not have to take theirs. So he recommends that each side send messengers to the Indians playing up the value of supporting the Persians.

Back with the Medians, Cyrus recommends going on the offensive: as long as the armies are in Median territory, there is inevitable damage done to Median territory. There are no real advantages to waiting -- they will still be outnumbered even if they wait -- but by pushing on into enemy territory they will be doing damage to the enemy, even if it is just unsettling them by how ready the Medes and the Persians are to fight. One of the things they do as they advance is only cook during the day; at night no campfires are allowed in camp. They also sometimes burn campfires at night far behind the actual camp. Thus the enemy scouts are in constant confusion about where the army actually is. The Assyrians usually defend their camps by digging trenches around them; thus the Assyrian army made their camp where it would be convenient to dig trenches -- and at this point it just so happened that the best place was in full view. Cyrus, however, deliberately camps his army in the place where the Armenians will be least likely to see what he is doing, so that he could spring something on them suddenly.

Cyaxares and Cyrus, who have largely been in agreement up to this point, disagree about the best tactics for the situation. Cyaxares wants to try to intimidate the enemy by assaulting the fortifications. Cyrus, however, argues that this will not work, for the Assyrians will trust their fortifications and see that they outnumber their enemy. In addition, any failure will give the Assyrians heart. He recommends that they wait until the Assyrians themselves come out. This is agreed upon, and the Assyrians do indeed prefer to come out rather than sit in camp. Cyaxares wants to assault the first group out, but Cyrus insists that it will be as good as a loss if less than half the Assyrians are defeated; if they fight too small a group at first, the Assyrians will get a second chance at coming up with a battle plan and will be able to pursue the second battle on their own terms. Cyaxares is not convinced, and presses Cyrus to move; Cyrus instructs his returning messenger to tell Cyaxares in front of everyone that there are still too few, but he will comply. The Persians rush the Assyrians, who turn to flee to the fortifications. The Medes and Persians press, but Cyrus pulls back the Persian Peers before they get caught inside the fortifications themselves, and the fact that they obeyed Xenophon notes approvingly as a sign that they were properly trained.

Book IV

The Assyrians, having lost the leaders of their army, flee in the night, leaving behind their provisions. He opposes pursuing the Assyrians, saying that they lack the horses required for such a task. At this point there just happens to arrive an embassy from the Hyrcanians, who are subjects of the Assyrians. Because the Hyrcanians are good with horses, the Assyrians use them for hard cavalry work. Hyrcanian cavalry had been guarding the Assyrian retreat. But the Hyrcanians see that this is a possible opportunity for breaking free of the heavy Assyrian yoke, so they offer their services to Cyrus, providing information as a show of good faith. Since the Hyrcanians tell them that the Assyrians can be caught before reaching their strongholds, if only one starts early enough and leaves behind heavy gear, this raises new possibilities. The Hyrcanians offer to bring hostages from stragglers among the Assyrians, to prove that they are right, and Cyrus promises that the Hyrcanians will have equal place with the Medes and the Persians if they give him their support. Cyrus asks for volunteers, and all the Persians and most of the Medes are willing to do so, especially when the latter hear about the Hyrcanians. The Hyrcanians realize that Cyrus is trusting them without requiring that they bring any hostages as proof of their word, as they had said they were willing to do, and are astonished. But Cyrus tells them that they have all the guarantee they need in their souls and in their preparation; although he does happen to mention the fact that if the Hyrcanians were to betray him, the Hyrcanians are the ones who would be at a disadvantage. This is actually the single best reply he could have made -- the Hyrcanians are impressed, even a bit frightened, at the fact that Cyrus is so confident about not needing to worry about the matter, and when the Persians and Medes catch up to the main Hyrcanian forces, they are equally impressed by the ease with which Cyrus treats them as allies worthy of trust, who are to be brought in not out of desperate need or through force, but simply by being asked to do so as allies.

The alliance of Persians, Medes, and Hyrcanians quickly overtakes the alliance armies, putting them into disarray. When Cyrus captures the camp servants, he realizes an opportunity to have appropriate provisions for his men, so he has them set aside provisions, which they are willing to do for the obvious reason that they see it as a way to keep from dying. Cyrus convinces the Persians to let the Medes and Hyrcanians be in charge of distributing the loot, even if they get less by it. The loot ends up being quite considerable, as are the number of female captives, because, says Xenophon they claim that soldiers will fight more fiercely if what they regard as precious is present. Xenophon is skeptical; as he says drily, "Perhaps this is so, but perhaps they also do this because they take delight in the pleasure" (4.3).

Cyrus takes the occasion to argue that the Persians should develop their own cavalry, and Chrysantas, one of his captains, agrees, saying that he has always envied the centaurs. As a result, they all agree that it will be a law among them that whoever is given a horse by Cyrus will regard it as shameful to be seen on foot, until people start to wonder whether the Persians might not actually be centaurs. This starts a custom that Xenophon says has continued until his day. He then turns his attention to the captives who are starting to come in. Cyrus points out that even good land is useless without people working it, and so he proposes that they release the captives , and to the captives says that they will be allowed to go home, on condition that they promise not to fight against the Persians and the Medes again; and in the future, if anyone does something unjust to them, the Persians and the Medes will fight on their side. Obviously the captives promise.

Cyaxares, somewhat hilariously, has been unaware of what was happening, since he has been partying in his tent after the first victory over the Assyrians. He has quite a surprise when he comes out the next morning, and is not at all happy about it. When he discovers the whole story of the Hyrcanians, he is even more furious, and recalls the Median cavalry by sending a small contingent of what he has left. The Medes are uncertain as to what to do, since he obviously has the right to call them back, but is also famously savage when angry. Cyrus sends a messenger to Persia, asking for reinforcements, and leverages his new alliance with the Hyrcanians by having them keep the contingent of Medes in charge of the recall entertained. He then sends a message to Cyaxares reporting what has happened. Cyrus does as he intended and puts the Hyrcanians and Medes in charge of distribution of loot. They give the horses to Cyrus, and he tells them to give generously to Cyaxares, as well. He then frees anyone who had been enslaved by the Assyrians in exchange for joining the ranks.

At this point, a captured Assyrian named Gobryas is brought in and asks to speak to Cyrus. He was good friends with the old Assyrian king, who had died in the battle at the fortifications, and was not on good terms with his son, the new Assyrian king, since he had caused the death of Gobryas's son. Gobryas asks Cyrus to become his avenger, and Cyrus promises he will, and will let him keep all that was his, if Gobryas can prove he is not lying. They agree, and Gobryas is allowed to return home. In the meantime, the distribution is done; the Medes have given Cyrus the most beautiful tent and the most beautiful woman, the Susan woman. The Hyrcanians gave the extra tents to Cyrus and distributed the coined money fairly.

The saga of Cyrus is, of course, far from over, and we will see both the Susan and Gobryas, as well as the response of Cyaxares, in the next books.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fortnightly Book, September 28

The next fortnightly book is Bret Harte's Tales of the Gold Rush. Harte, born Francis Brett Hart in Albany, New York, went to California at the age of seventeen. There he taught school for a while in Oakland, doing various odd jobs for additional income. In 1868 he became editor for The Overland Monthly, which would change his life. There was a paucity of literature about California life, so Harte wrote up a story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp", to be included in the periodical. By his own story, he got called to the office of the publisher, who was very worried: when the printer received the story, he had returned the proofs not to Harte but to the publisher, insisting that the story was so scurrilous and indecent that his proofreader could hardly read it. Harte was utterly baffled as to what this meant. He read it again, and was convinced that this was wrong. He convinced his publisher at least to let it through as a test of his editorial judgment -- and the story, about a group of miners stuck with an infant after the death of a prostitute, garnered Harte instant acclaim. For a brief period, he made a considerable amount of money as a writer for periodicals, although he spent much of his last years struggling as his popularity waned.

Tales of the Gold Rush is an anthology of thirteen tales from various of Harte's collections of short stories:

The Luck of Roaring Camp
The Outcasts of Poker Flat
Tennessee's Partner
Brown of Calaveras
The Idyl of Bed Gulch
The Iliad of Sandy Bar
The Poet of Sierra Flat
How Santa Claus Came to Simpson's Bar
An Apostle of the Tules
An Ingenue of the Sierras
A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's
Prosper's "Old Mother"

The one I'll be reading is a Heritage Press book illustrated by Fletcher Martin, the American painter. The typeface is a version of Walbaum called 'Waverly', with a fair mix of other typefaces fulfilling other functions. The book has a plain linen spine and marbled gold covers that are quite handsome.

I've been snowed under with grading recently, but even if this continues, this should be a fairly manageable book to handle.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena


Opening Passage:

In the city-states of Tuscany the citizens--Popolani--businessmen, master craftsmen and the professional class had already in the Middle Ages demanded and won the right to take part in the government of the republic side by side with the nobles--the Gentiluomini. In Siena they ahd obtained a third of the seats in the high Council as early as the twelfth century. In spite of the fact that the different parties and rival groups within the parties were in constant and often violent disagreement, and in spite of the frequent wars with Florence, Siena's neighbour and most powerful competitor, prosperity reigned within the city walls.

Summary: Fourteenth-century Italy is a world falling apart, splitting Italian against Italian and both against the French, and, eventually, splitting even the Church against the Church. It is not a period in which one would expect a single woman, neither a queen nor a wealthy woman, to have a profound impact; and yet Catherine Benincasa, neither royal nor wealthy, had just such a profound impact on the day, slowing the decline, moderating the violence, setting up the first definite steps toward peace. Undset's biography gives us this story, heavily saturated with Catherine's own words, but also with a sympathetic sense of her motives and a recognition that a world which had undergone two world wars and myriad smaller ones might perhaps need to learn something from a woman who knew how to face a world falling apart. And this last is true however strange we may find facets of Catherine's life; after all, as Undset notes, her contemporaries found her difficult to understand for many of the same reasons people in our age would say they find her difficult to understand.

Catherine's life essentially consists of four things, the Eucharist, religious experiences, correspondence with others, and the politics of the day, and for her they are all interconnected. Political division arises from a failure to express the love found in the Eucharist; her many religious experiences are all connected to the Eucharist as their root; her correspondence with others, guided by her religious experiences, is an extension of the love and the strength she derives from the Eucharist; and by her correspondence she begins to reknit what politics has torn apart. In all these things she displays a perceptive intelligence and an indomitable will; one of the things I like about the book is that it shows how an extremely stubborn Italian girl could become the saint she became, with the extreme stubbornness not vanishing but being transformed into something different. Grace perfects nature not just in general ways, but by turning our quirks and even in our failings into something beneficial. Outside of occasional exceptions, an excitable sinner becomes an excitable saint, a choleric sinner a choleric saint, a stubborn sinner a stubborn saint, a scheming sinner a scheming saint -- but although we can use the same adjective on both sides, there is something fundamentally different in its meaning, a change in the very structure and form of its expression.

One of the things that is difficult to wrap one's mind around is how much Catherine accomplished in her short life. She died at the age of thirty-three. While there was a great deal to her life before she was twenty-three, for practical purposes this can be seen as the start of her full mission. It is difficult to avoid the impression that from this point onward the clock was ticking. Ten years. But in that period she saved souls gone astray, protected Siena from sack, reconciled warring princes, shifted the views of Popes, and changed countless lives for the better.

And it did not end there, for she became a teacher for the ages. St. Catherine of Siena was given the title, Doctor of the Church, by Paul VI in 1970, years after the book was written and Undset's death. But it could come as no surprise to anyone who read Undset's account of her life. It is very difficult to write about incalculable good; that is why most hagiographies seem somewhat flat in comparison with other kinds of biographical writing, however good they may be on their own terms. But Undset manages it extraordinarily well. If St. Catherine is a Teacher of the Church, Undset is a worthy teaching assistant.

Giovanni di Paolo The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena,

MrsDarwin has a good reflection on the book over at her blog.

Favorite Passage: There are a number that are good. Here is one:

There is nothing in the experience of man which shows that the raw material of human nature has ever changed. It is eternally dragged down by our desire for the things which escape our grasp, or if we manage to grasp some of them we find that we are still not satisfied. Satisfied desire produces new desire until old age puts a stop to the chase, and death ends all. We are shown frequent glimpses of our nature which remind us of our origin, and in whose image we are created. From the image of God in us we have creative energy, the spring of unselfish love--unselfish in spite of the shadow of egoism which is inseparable from all our impulses; the longing to create our world to an ordered pattern, to live according to the law, and to see our ideals of justice realised. (p. 332)

Recommendation: It's a fairly straightfoward biography-hagiography, told well, making St. Catherine, not the most obviously accessible saint, vivid and approachable. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Radio Greats: What the Whiskey Drummer Heard (Gunsmoke)

The original idea for Gunsmoke at CBS was a crossing of mysteries and Westerns: Philip Marlowe in the Old West. The idea morphed a bit in development, but a constant throughout was an insistence on making it an adult Western. Most Westerns on the radio were kids' shows -- along the lines of Hopalong Cassidy or The Lone Ranger. The idea with Gunsmoke was to create a Western series that didn't sugarcoat the Old West. And that was the result. It's never explicit, but there are plenty of clues that Miss Kitty is a prostitute and that Marshal Matt Dillon, while on the side of the law, is very much like some of the men he hunts down. And he is not some white-hat hero always there in the knick of time. Sometimes he fails. The series also regularly handled hard issues: mob violence, domestic abuse, rape. Dangerous territory, but it handled it well: Gunsmoke is easily one of the top shows of the Golden Age.

The radio show ran from 1952 to 1961. Of course, most people today know of Gunsmoke from the television version, which ran from 1955 to 1975 for an astounding 635 episodes. Many of them were original to TV, but quite a few were adaptations of radio scripts, especially in the early years. The TV show had a different cast -- William Conrad, who played Dillon on the radio, to much acclaim, didn't have the look they wanted (it's generally thought that his weight was the factor). James Arness got the part instead. This arguably came near to killing the radio series -- Conrad's Dillon was iconic, and many fans of the radio show refused to watch the television series. But the stories made good TV as well as good radio, and the series survived. It was also the twilight of the age of radio and the dawn of the age of television; it was perhaps inevitable that the television series would outlast its originally more popular radio counterpart and rival.

Of all modern genres, the Western is perhaps the one that is most thoroughly concerned with the concept of Civilization. Most major tropes in the genre are about the building of civilization, or about protecting it from the greed, brutality, and ignorance that constantly threaten to bring it down. One episode of Gunsmoke that is exactly in this line is "What the Whiskey Drummer Heard". Unlike many stories, it doesn't give us any inkling of what to do about the struggle between civilized life and barbarism, but it puts the contrast in perhaps the most stark terms: at its root, it's a struggle between Reason and Unreason. Marshal Dillon has to watch out when a whiskey salesman tells him about overhearing men plotting his death. It has all the trappings of a mystery, but it is handled in a way very different from what you would find in a mystery tale -- and in a way that fits the Western genre to a T.

You can listen to "What the Whiskey Drummer Heard" at Old Time Radio Westerns.

The same script, with minor variation, was used for an episode of the TV series a few years later.

Internal Recollection of Eternal Love

Without supposing that there is, inborn in the human soul, a whole system of notions and forms of thought—a whole world, in short, of all possible ideas—may there not have been imparted to it from above a higher gift, which, naturally, is only called into action simultaneously with the awakening of the rest of the human mind, or of the mind generally? If so, would it not appear to the soul in the form of a memory; and, in a certain sense, be really such, though, indeed, not so much a memory of the past as of eternity? This is a question which, advanced in this sense, can not, I think, be absolutely negatived; not that any essential necessity or actual ground exists for it; but that, carefully guarded by certain limitations, it is an hypothesis that may, without hesitation, be assumed or conceded. Can it, in truth, well be doubted that every spiritual being, created by infinite love, has had imparted to him a share in the source of eternal love, which is to remain his forever, or so long, at least, as the connection with the supreme source of his being is not violently broken and rent asunder?

Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of Language, Morrison, tr., p. 401

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Links for Noting, Notably Noted

* Boswell's Postcards from a Hanging

* Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Philosophers (ht)

* Tasneem Zehra Husain, On Optimal Paths & Minimal Action

* Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists. Strictly speaking, of course, what the study actually does is just collect cases -- albeit a fair number of them -- of people scoring on these traits on a pscyhological trait when they also claim that trolling is their favorite internet activity.

* Gail Presbey, African Sage Philosophy, at the IEP

* Lydia McGrew on William Paley's Horae Paulinae

* Philosophers' Carnival #167

* Teresa Limjoco on Mary, Queen of Scots

* David J. Palm on usury

* Christopher Tollefsen on Incest and Pornography at "Public Discourse"

* MrD on The Tragic Sense of History

* Jennifer Nagel has a good Philosophy Bites podcast on Intuitions about Knowledge

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Philip of Opus was, according to gossip left us by Diogenes Laertius in his Life of Plato, a student in Plato's Academy. When Plato died, the Laws were still in draft form on wax tablets, and Philip of Opus is said by some to have written out the manuscript from those tablets. And, says Diogenes Laertius with no further explanation, some say that Philip of Opus wrote the Epinomis. 'Epinomis', of course, indicates that it was intended to be an appendix to the Laws, and, indeed, one can not uncommonly find people in antiquity referring to it as the thirteenth book of the Laws. Stylometrically the dialogue fits very well with all of the dialogues usually called 'late dialogues' -- Laws, Philebus, Statesman, Sophist, Timaeus, Critias. So vocabulary and style don't give us any obvious reason to reject it as authentically Plato. So, beyond Diogenes Laertius (and perhaps the Suda, assuming it was using sources other than Diogenes Laertius himself when it makes the same claim), the only reasons for taking this dialogue to be inauthentic are content-based: there are a number of claims made here that seem hard to square with positions in other Platonic dialogues. Content-based evaluations of authenticity are relatively weak, but there are several objections based on content. And, of course, while Diogenes Laertius is not a reliable source for what really happened, he does seem to be a fairly reliable source for what other people said or wrote, and the fact that someone in antiquity (whoever it may have been) thought it as Philip's perhaps bears some weight even though we have no idea who he was or why he said it -- it's not as if the name 'Philip of Opus' just leaps to mind when thinking about Plato, so one presumes that there was some specific reason for the attribution. Cicero, however, at least once refers to the dialogue (in De Oratore) as if it were Plato's, so that at least suggests that the attribution to Philip of Opus was not universal.

You can read the Epinomis online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource.

The Characters

The dialogue has the same characters as the Laws: the Athenian Stranger, Clinias of Crete, and Megillus of Sparta. Megillus, however, is only present; he does not speak.

The Plot and The Thought

The dialogue opens with Clinias insisting that they should finish the discussion; in particular, they should discuss the most important thing: "what a mortal must learn in order to be wise" (973b). The Athenian replies that most human beings are not happy, and that life tends to be hard and harsh. One of the difficulties it throws in our way is that of discovering wisdom. While some people have been reputed wise by learning various arts and sciences a long time ago, we see in most cases that you can spend lifetimes on the knowledge and not be any wiser. Such is the knowledge relevant to what to eat, or the knowledge involved in agriculture, or the knowledge of architectures and the crafts. Prophetic inspiration does not give it, nor do any of the fine arts, nor does military strategy or navigation. Wisdom is not even given by the natural talent for learning well. But, the Athenian says, there is one kind of knowledge without which human beings would be virtually senseless and unintelligent, namely, the gift of numbers. It is god-given:

It is God himself, I believe, and not some good fortune that saves us by making this gift. But I must say which god I mean, though it will seem strange, though yet in a way not strange....Uranus (i.e., heaven), the god whom above all others it si most just to pray to and to honor, as all the other divinities and gods do. We will unanimously agree that he has been the cause of all other good things fo rus. But we declare that he is really the one who gave us number too, and he will continue to give it, supposing that we are willing to follow him closely. (976e-977a)

Without number we can know nothing of proportion or of how to prove things or of how to give a rational explanation for anything or of how to behave in an orderly and thus virtuous way or of how to make beautiful things. We are taught number directly by the god himself, whether we call him Cosmos or Olympos or Ouranos:

With us humans, the first thing God caused to dwell in us was the capability to understand what we are shown, and then he proceeded to show us, and he still does....Since Heaven never stops making these bodies ply their course night after night and day after day, he never stops teaching humans one and two, until even the slowest person learns well enough to count. (978c-d)

The Athenian then reiterates the account given in Book X of the Laws of the priority of soul, and argues that there are two kinds of living thing: one made of fire and one made of earth. The living things made of fire move in perfect order, whereas the living things made of earth are more disordered. From the fact that the bodies of the heavens move in such excellent order, we should conclude that they are not just living but intelligent. The Athenian notes that the vulgar populace tends to assume that because the stars always do the same thing that they are unintelligent, but replies that this makes no sense if you think about what intelligence is. It is that which is less subject to chance and inexplicable motion, that which is most uniform and invariable, that most deserves the name 'intelligence'. And we can see this confirmed in the fact that the stars are extraordinarily vast, but still keep an orderly and lawlike motion. And if soul is prior to body, as argued in Book X of the Laws, then the bodies that decorate Heaven must move according to souls. There are then two possibilities: either they are themselves gods, or they are likenesses of gods that have been formed by the gods. Thus the stars must be honored and hymned as higher and better and nobler and more beautiful than us. We can legislate about other gods (Zeus, Hera, and so forth) as seems best given our history; but the stars are the gods that are "visible, greatest, most honored, and most sharply seeing everywhere" (984d).

After the living beings of fire come the living beings of ether, then the living beings of air, water, and earth. Between us and the gods are the daemons. Those of ether, who are closest to the gods, and those in the middle position, made of air, are always imperceptible to us. Unlike the gods, they can experience pleasure and pain, love and hate; but they are better at loving good and hating bad than we are. Beneath these two kinds of daemons are the daemons made of water, which are sometimes imperceptible and sometimes perceptible. The gods and the daemons are the sources of all religious rites, and their determinations, such as we can learn of them through dreams or divine voices, should be respected by legislators. This is difficult to do, but the Greeks are well-favored. Because they have education, the oracle of Delphi, and relatively good laws, as well as an excellent location for the viewing of the sky, they will tend to be able to worship the gods better than any other people. This right reverence for the gods is the most important part of virtue.

Astronomy therefore is the science of wisdom, and the true astronomer is the wisest kind of person. Out of astronomy we learn all of mathematics, music, and dance. We learn reverence for the gods, and everything needed to know the bonds that unite the world. After death the astronomer (and here the Athenian says he is half-joking and half-serious) will have the kind of pure knowledge without which human beings cannot be happy. Thus astronomy should be the foundation on which high office and especially the Nocturnal Council in the new colony is based.

  Additional Remarks

* One of the content-based reasons for questioning the authenticity of the dialogue is the extraordinary exaltation of astronomy. Astronomy, to be sure, was clearly stated to be important in the Laws; while the Laws is a work of civil theology, not natural theology, it made clear that astronomy was the point at which civil theology and natural theology overlapped. The two bulwarks mentioned there, erected against the corrosive influence of atheism on our conceptions of rule of law, were the priority of soul over body and the rationality of the heavens. So it makes sense that astronomy would be foundational. But the claims made for astronomy here strike many people as much more extreme than one would expect from Plato, even so. Plato's Socrates, for instance, in the Republic seems to hold (529d-e) that astronomy is merely a preparatory discipline for the much more important knowledge of the Forms. However, the Epinomis is building on comments in the Laws itself, for instance, Book VII (817e-818a).

* The Epinomis is one of the earliest works attesting to our names for the planets -- it uses the Greek names, of course, and we use the Latin, but the correspondences are exact: Aphrodites' star is Venus, Hermes' star is Mercury, Ares' star is Mars, Zeus's star is Jupiter, and Chronos's star is Saturn. (Mercury is also called Hermes' star at Timaeus 38d.)


Quotations are from the translation of Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, trs., pp. 1617-1633.

And now we have gone through the entire Platonic corpus.