Sunday, April 20, 2014

William James and James Fitzjames Stephen

William James's essay, "The Will to Believe", is widely read by philosophers, but one thing that I have never seen anyone remark upon is the relation of the essay to the work of James Fitzjames Stephen. Nonetheless, there is good reason to explore the relation, not least because James opens the essay with an anecdote about Fitzjames Stephen and closes with a quotation from Stephen's Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, which is an attack on Mill's On Liberty.

Like Mill, Stephen was a utilitarian. Like Mill, he was a liberal. Unlike Mill, he was what would have been at the time a more typical representative of both. It can be difficult for modern philosophers to put themselves back into that frame of reference, but it really is quite important for understanding both. Mill's On Liberty may be a standard text of what we call classical liberalism, but many liberals in his day considered it to be a dubious contribution to liberalism. And the reverse is also true; James Stephen often gets branded as a conservative, but he was a reformer and liberal through and through -- he just thought that Mill's version of liberalism was incoherent and that it cut off too many of the means by which genuine reforms could be furthered. This is precisely what Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity is: an argument that a coherent liberalism involves the use of means that Mill's ideas ruled out of court. In particular, he argues that genuine reform requires the use of government force in the interests of morality and religion, and that it is not only undesirable but impossible to regulate a nation and maintain it on a path of progress entirely by free discussion, with coercion only being used to stop or remedy definite cases of harm.

One of the things that Stephen considers problematic about Mill's account is that his restriction of coercion (not just government coercion but also the coercion of public opinion) amounts to an insistence that certain kinds of passions -- like fears -- should not be part of one's system of governance. This would have been very high on Stephen's list of concerns; when he wrote Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, he was traveling back from India, where he had been on the Colonial Council and had been working on drafting laws to reduce the power of the caste system -- for instance, he was responsible for new rules of evidence according to which there was only one standard of evidence for everyone, regardless of caste or religion. While Mill very carefully formulates his harm principle so that it does not directly interfere with colonial policies (a fact usually overlooked in discussions of On Liberty), people like Stephen did not see themselves as doing in India anything other than the same kind of thing that utilitarian and liberal reformers were doing in Britain itself -- they were just at a different stage of progress. Stephen considers Mill's restriction of compulsion to be both detrimental to progress and inconsistent with human nature. Human beings, when deeply interested, as in cases of morality or religion, are drawn to the insistence that everybody should be on board with whatever moral or religious principle they are deeply interested in; it is not possible, in the statistical main, to have a society in which this has no effect whatsoever. This is not purely restricted to moral and religious matters, although those are the ones with which Stephen is primarily concerned; Stephen notes the acrimony that builds up in fairly abstract disputes and takes it to be the sign of an obvious fact, that we are not, and are not capable of being, purely neutral, however much we might try to hide it. Feelings occupy a great deal of our decisions and reasoning.

It is when considering this aspect in the context of religion that Stephen makes the remarks James quotes:

What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world?...These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. . . . In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark....If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ' Be strong and of a good courage.' Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes....If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

James, of course, is not committed to Stephen's broader ethical and political views, just as Stephen is not committed to James's own ideas. There are certainly aspects of thought that James shares more with Mill than Stephen. But it's impossible not to recognize that Stephen's attack on Millian liberalism has broad resemblances to James's attack on Cliffordian ethics of belief. They both deny that the matters in question -- politics in the case of Stephen, inquiry in the case of James -- can be purely abstract; they both insist that the passions play an important and ineliminable role in guidance of their respective fields of discussion, and in some ways the important role; they are both insisting on what today would be called naturalizing the fields in question -- they are taking some normative principle held by their respective proponents on purely abstract principles and insisting on subordinating it to psychological facts; they both insist on the importance of action to our beliefs.

Breathe a Breath of Life Forevermore

An Easter Flower Gift
by John Greenleaf Whittier


O dearest bloom the seasons know,
Flowers of the Resurrection blow,
Our hope and faith restore;
And through the bitterness of death
And loss and sorrow, breathe a breath
Of life forevermore!

The thought of Love Immortal blends
With fond remembrances of friends;
In you, O sacred flowers,
By human love made doubly sweet,
The heavenly and the earthly meet,
The heart of Christ and ours!

Radio Greats: Easter Sunrise Service (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet)

Ozzie and Harriet Nelson are easily in the running for being the king and queen of situation comedy. Their radio sitcom was a major fixture from 1944 to 1954 and was one of the radio shows that easily made the transition to television, where it ran from 1952 to 1966, making them, as their tagline always was, "America's Favorite Family". The first few years on radio their children were played by various actors, but eventually David and Ricky Nelson began playing themselves; and the television show eventually show launched Ricky Nelson's music career as a teen idol.

The basic premise of the show was modern suburban family life, with lots of humor, but always put in a positive light; it was intended to be a comic, rose-colored-glasses version of the Nelsons' own family life. It was such a major fixture that many of the aspects of sitcoms that we regard as formulaic or cliched were developed by the show and just became standard.

Great situation comedies tend to be characterized by consistently OK or good episodes rather than by any particularly great episodes. But sometimes special-occasion episodes do stand out as both combining the basic features of the series and doing something a little different with them. The "Easter Sunrise Service" episode (also just known as the "Easter Show"), from April 1949, is an example; Easter-themed classic radio episodes were not very common, unlike Christmas episodes, which would have made it a rare treat -- and it was actually a relatively popular episode in part because of this. It also captures a lot of the rather lighthearted and easygoing humor of the series, and it's late enough that the entire Nelson femily is on the cast.

You can listen to the show online at My Old Radio.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Music on My Mind



Praeconium Paschale (also known as the Easter Proclamation or Exsultet), sung by Rev. Jonathan Gaspar. I truly think this song, on the Easter Candle, has claim to being one of the great songs of Western civilization. The felix culpa section, which has had an extraordinary influence on thought and literature, is based on discussions by Ambrose and Augustine; the awesome section about the bees is influenced by Virgil's Georgics. Jesus is referred to as the Morning Star in the book of Revelation. The origins of it are not clearly known; but the melody is thought to go back at least to the seventh century, perhaps much earlier, and some of the lyrics as well. In one form or another it has been sung at Easter Vigil in the West for over a thousand years.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Poem Draft

Good Friday in the Year of Our Lord 2014

Most holy God,
the darkness shades across the sun in heartfelt sky,
and how can otherwise it be when I yelled, "Crucify!"
or how can otherwise it be when on the cross you die?
And yet you know, you voiced the secret fears,
you spoke it on the bloodstained cross of tears,
"Eli, eli, lama sabachthani," you, dying, cried;
you spoke my anguish, you spoke it as you died.
As Peter wept, and still is forced to weep
those three dark days on which entombed you sleep
as all your people scatter, wolf-scared sheep,
as them, so I, I falter, shatter, fail,
and stumble on this self-wrought path to hell,
alone, in realms no forward travels tell,
by sin destroyed, through sin entrapped, deceived,
by sin, my own, of God Himself bereaved,
and yet--
you do not cease to aid
and yet--
you a new salvation made,
are making, as you, entombed in cold and musty grave,
unleash the ancient plan -- and nations save.


****

A reason it has been quiet around here recently is, besides increased grading as the end of term approaches, that it is Holy Week; I helped read on Palm Sunday, I read the first reading today for Good Friday, and I will be reading at least one of the readings for Easter morning. That's a lot of preparation-heavy work. (The above was scrawled out after the service tonight.) I wasn't too worried about today's reading (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) -- I did it last year -- but it's a tricky passage and I don't think I got the pacing right last time. This time I got the pacing right, but I felt it came across as a bit bland while I was doing it. I had several people go out of their way to compliment me on it, though, which practically never happens, since the parish I attend is a tad picky about liturgical matters. I never know what to think about that, though; on the one hand, it's a great feeling of relief that you've passed the neverending exam, but on the other hand, there's always that part of me that thinks that if they are noticing you rather than the passage, you are simply doing it wrong. In any case, not much time to stop and fret about it -- on I go to Easter morning.....

Not So the Thief Was Moved

Good Friday
by Christina Rossetti


Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood's slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon--
I, only I.

Yet give not o'er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Government Ethics Crossword

Today we looked at government ethics in my Ethics course. It's a brief little glance as they get their major projects ready, so it's not intended to be a heavy-lifting class. We look briefly at the civil service, and at the Pendleton Act and why it developed, and I give them some standard training materials used by the U. S. Office of Government Ethics for ethics training and (very briefly) discuss them. And then I have them break into groups and do this crossword puzzle (PDF), which at one time was regularly used as a training tool -- it's slightly dated at this point, being a few years old, but still gives a sense of what is done to avoid conflicts of interest at the civil service level.

18 Down is the clue, "Once you receive ethics advice, _________ it" (six letters), and my students (some of whom work for companies that do contracting for government and so are familiar with complications involved in these matters) joked that the answer was "forget".

Chrysologus for Lent XLIII

Pray, brothers, that we also may die to the vices and be buried to temporal vanities, so that we may rise to eternity in Christ, and be found worthy of being placed on his right and hearing: "Come, blessed of my Father, receive teh kingdom which has been prepared for you from the beginning of the world."

Sermon 82, section 4. And this brings it to the end.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wild for the Hunter's Roving

Temegami
by Archibald Lampman


Far in the grim Northwest beyond the lines
That turn the rivers eastward to the sea,
Set with a thousand islands, crowned with pines,
Lies the deep water, wild Temagami:
Wild for the hunter's roving, and the use
Of trappers in its dark and trackless vales,
Wild with the trampling of the giant moose,
And the weird magic of old Indian tales.
All day with steady paddles toward the west
Our heavy-laden long canoe we pressed:
All day we saw the thunder-travelled sky
Purpled with storm in many a trailing tress,
And saw at eve the broken sunset die
In crimson on the silent wilderness.

Chrysologus for Lent XLII

And if, brothers, the voice of God, the trumpet of Christ, throughout the course of days, months, seasons, and years, calls, retracts, brings out, brings back, restores, orders to be, causes not to be, consigns to death, and restores to life, why might it not be able to do once for us what it always does for everything else? Or does the divine power lose its strength only when it comes to us, solely for whose benefit God's majesty has performed everything that has just been mentioned? O man, if all these things come back to life again from their death for you, why will you not come back to life from your death for God?

Sermon 103, section 3.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The CIA and Doctor Zhivago

The CIA has recently declassified documents relevant to its role in the publication of Doctor Zhivago:

WASHINGTON, DC -- The Central Intelligence Agency on Friday, April 11th posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union. The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.


The point was to provoke the Russian people into wondering what was wrong with their government that a major book by one of their greatest living authors was available everywhere except in the Soviet Union. That sounds rather a roundabout strategy, but it turned out to be reasonably successful -- it led to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize for literature and the novel being a worldwide phenomenon, which provided the CIA what it needed to start funneling copies into the Soviet Union on the black market. Indeed, it was almost too successful; so much attention guaranteed that people started tracing back sources and suspected that the CIA had a hand in it. The National Post has an article discussing the matter.

Chrysologus for Lent XLI

Peter denies, John flees, Thomas doubts, all forsake him: unless Christ had granted forgiveness for these transgressions by his peace, even Peter, who was the first in rank of all of them, would be considered inferior, and would perhaps be undeserving of his subsequent elevation to the primacy.

Sermon 84, section 5

Monday, April 14, 2014

Two Poem Re-Drafts

A Meditation on Reading the Analects

Ruler's authority, wind-like;
subject's authority, grass-like:
wind blows, grass bends.

Not governing oneself,
not governing others:
ungoverning here, ungoverning there.

Prince as prince,
minister, minister:
that is government.

Untiringly to remember,
unwaveringly to practice:
that is government.

To accept wise counsel,
to exalt good character:
that is government.

To bless the near,
to lure the far:
that is government.

Unrushing and not niggling,
pardoning with ease:
that is government.

The unturning star
turning all stars:
that is government.

Donder-thunder-donner-rain

Donder-thunder-donner-rain:
Clouds grow dark, grumble, crash;
tongues of storm, sparks of light
charge recklessly across the clouds,
bolts on black breaking night,
cracking, creasing, sky and mind
with clarity of fire.

Rushing, roaring winds inspire
rains in pouring, thoughts in streams,
endless drops that drip from heaven,
washing, wishing, on the streets.
Silence drenches rain-swept pathways;
clouds alone still have their say:
Donder-thunder-donner-rain.

Fortnightly Book, April 13

It might well be a busy two weeks -- I'm already behind on quite a few things -- so I need a re-read or something relatively unchallenging. So I've decided to go with something I haven't read for some years.

You might remember from the latter part of Little Women some of the story of Jo's struggles to write. One of the more vivid parts of that story consists of Jo writing 'potboilers' for newspapers, which intersects with her early interactions with Professor Bhaer; he provokes and encourages her to think of herself as capable of more, one of the signs that he is very good for her. Alcott knew something of potboiler-writing, both why one would do it and why it might drag one down, because she had by that point been a potboiler-writer, usually under the pen-name "A. M. Barnard", for quite some time. The fortnightly book is one of these potboilers: A Long Fatal Love Chase.

Alcott had been asked by her publisher to write a sensational work of twenty-four chapters in which the end of every second chapter introduces some hook to keep the reader reading. She wrote A Modern Mephistopheles: or The Fatal Love Chase in two months, drawing on her recent year-long trip to Europe. It was rejected, however, as too long and too sensational. It certainly does hit all the marks for sensationalism for the day, whether it be bigamy or suicide or a handsome Catholic priest who isn't a villain. Alcott worked on revising it, eventually using the main title for a completely different work, one which is essentially a retelling of Faust, The book was never published, however, until Kent Bicknell published it in 1995, in its pre-revision form, as A Long Fatal Love Chase. I picked it up shortly after it came out; it was a quite vigorous story, and it will be interesting to reflect on it here in two weeks' time.

One often finds people contrasting the work with Little Women and commenting on its strong, independent heroine. I think this is a point on which contemporary values end up distorting the reading, somewhat as if one were to read Pride and Prejudice and conclude that Lydia is the strong, independent woman rather than Elizabeth. Rosamond, the main character of A Long Fatal Love Chase, is on practically every score weaker and more dependent than the March sisters. She is strong-willed, yes, but her primary free choice consists of putting herself entirely into the power of a very dangerous man, a situation from which she stands no chance of extricating herself without the help of very brave men. Her 'year of freedom' is the Faustian bargain intimated by the repeated echoes of Goethe throughout the work: she receives nothing from Phillip Tempest but an illusory freedom and status as a pet and a toy. Her entire story is of moving from depending on one man to depending on another. For all that, she is a vividly written character in an interesting story, in which she learns the importance of "the serenity of a true heart strong to love, patient to wait" (p. 346). It is love and patience, however, not the impetuosity and self-will, that holds the key to strength and independence, and it is learning it, however slowly and tragically, that makes Rosamond stand out from legions of sensational women characters coming to tragic ends.

If it turns out that this next two weeks is much less busy than I'm expecting, I'll add Alcott's Faust retelling, A Modern Mephistopheles, to this one. But I'm not promising anything on that score.

***

Louisa May Alcott, A Long Fatal Love Chase. Dell (New York: 1995).

Chrysologus for Lent XL

Pray, brothers, that the angel may descend now and roll away all hardness from our heart, and remove the barriers to our understanding, and show that Christ has also risen out of our mental limitations, since just as that heart is heaven in which Christ lives and reigns, so too that breast is a tomb in which Christ is still held to be dead and buried. Just as we believe that Christ's death occurred, so too must we believe that it is entirely a thing of the past. Christ as Man suffered, died, and was buried; he is, lives, reigns, continues, and remains forever as God.

Sermon 75, section 4.