Saturday, February 21, 2015

That Man May Hope to Rise yet Feare to Fall

Tymes Goe by Turnes
by St. Robert Southwell

The lopped trees in tyme may growe againe;
Most naked plants renewe both frute and floure;
The soriest wight may finde release of payne,
The dryest soyle sucke in some moystning shoure;
Tymes goe by turnes and chances chang by course,
From foule to fayre, from better happ to worse.

The sea of Fortune doth not ever floe,
She draws her favours to the lowest ebb;
Her tide hath equall tymes to come and goe,
Her loome doth weave the fine and coarsest webb;
No joy so great but runneth to an ende,
No happ so harde but may in fine amende.

Not allwayes fall of leaf nor ever springe,
No endlesse night yet not eternall daye;
The saddest birdes a season finde to singe,
The roughest storme a calme may soon alaye;
Thus with succeding turnes God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise yet feare to fall.

A chaunce may wynne that by mischance was lost;
The nett that houldes no greate, takes little fishe;
In some thinges all, in some thinges none are croste,
Fewe all they neede, but none have all they wishe;
Unmedled joyes here to no man befall,
Who least hath some, who most hath never all.

On February 21, 1595, Robert Southwell, major poet and Jesuit missionary, was hung by the neck at Tyburn; his corpse was then drawn and quartered to finish his sentence. He was canonized as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, whose feast-day is October 25. Times do indeed go by turns.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book I

Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) was, of course, the Roman emperor, and we find this reflected in his notes to himself, which were written while on military campaign in the last decade of his life. When the emperor Hadrian began to take thought for succession, he formally adopted Aelius Antoninus (usually known as Antoninus Pius), but on condition that Antoninus also adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus as his heirs. Marcus had considerable difficulty adjusting to his position; he never seems to have particularly liked either the duties or the pomp that his adoption gave him, a fact that was probably aggravated by the fact that he was never in very good health. Through much of his reign the northern borders of the empire were in serious peril, and dealing with the tribes to the north took a considerable portion of his last years. His campaign was successful, but was never completed as he fell ill.

The work that has come down to us has no definite title and may never have been intended to have any. The earliest title in the manuscripts seems to have been "To Himself" (ta eis heauton). There are two indications in the text of location and time ("Written in the land of the Quades, on the banks of the Gran" and "Written in Carnutum"); we do not know if they are original or not. The book is usually divided into twelve books, but the divisions seem artificial and are certainly later; Hadot notes that the Vaticanus manuscript only indicates the divisions Book I, Book II, Books III-IV, Books V-VI-VII-VIII, Books IX-X-XI, and Book XII. As a set of notes that seem to have been written on different occasions, it involves a great deal of repetition; but one way to look at the work is as Marcus's constant refining of Stoic ideas in light of his practical experience. (This is, I think, the appropriate answer to claims of Marcus Aurelius's not being a work of 'original' philosophy, which I find come up amusingly often. In fact, the philosophical work here could hardly help but be original: it is a case of a philosopher writing in unusual circumstances -- not many philosophers have had to struggle with ethical issues while on military campaign as emperor -- in a format that itself is relatively uncommon, and he is trying out various ideas from different directions and looking at them in different lights. It is true that many of the central ideas are from Epictetus and other Stoics; but he is doing very different things with them. And while one might claim that Marcus Aurelius is not of the intellectual influence and significance of a Plato or Aristotle, it is an atrocious intellectual habit to talk as if the good were the enemy of the best.)

You can read the Meditations online in English in George Long's translation at the Internet Classics Archive.

Book I

Book I, being more coherent and organized than the other parts of the work, is often thought to have been written last. In it Marcus goes through the resources he has received from the people in his life -- usually their example, but occasionally other thing as well. Some comments about the people mentioned (several of them are people about whom we otherwise know little):

Verus and Annius Verus: Marcus's father, Annius Verus, died when he was an early teenager, so his grandfather, Verus, had a significant role in his life, and he did not know his father except through some limited memories and by reputation.

Domitia Lucilla: Marcus's mother; from an extraordinarily wealthy family, she seems to have been quite capable, and, of course, she raised Marcus herself for a considerable portion of his late childhood.

Quintus Junius Rusticus: A Stoic philosopher. Outside of his association with Marcus, he is best known for probably being the judge who condemned St. Justin Martyr to death.

Apollonius of Chalcedon: Another Stoic philosopher.

Sextus of Chaeronea: Another Stoic philosopher. He seems to have been related to Plutarch, and also seems to have been a later rather than earlier acquaintance of the emperor, since we have stories of Marcus as an old man studying with him.

Alexander of Cotiaeum: A grammarian. Outside of his association with Marcus, he is best known for being the teacher of Aelius Aristides, one of the greatest orators of the Second Sophistic.

Marcus Cornelius Fronto: Born in Numidia, he became very wealthy and was appointed tutor to Marcus by Antoninus Pius. He had a very close relationship with Marcus, and some of their extensive correspondence has survived. Minucius Felix in the Octavius briefly mentions a speech in which he attacks Christians for incestuous orgies.

Alexander the Platonist: He was one of Marcus's secretaries.

Claudius Severus: We don't actually know who Marcus intends, but he likely means Claudius Severus, whose son married one of Marcus's daughters, and who might possibly have been a Peripatetic philosopher.

Claudius Maximus: He seems to have been another Stoic philosopher.

Antoninus Pius: Marcus's adopted father and, with Marcus, one of the Five Good Emperors. Famous for his dutifulness, he had a relatively peaceful reign, during which he patronized philosophy and the arts, and seems to have had a relatively hands-off approach to governing the empire, preferring to handle matters through the local authorities.

Note that Marcus's last note, on what he has received from the gods, sums up the rest of the book.

to be continued

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent IV

There is nothing so capable of banishing the inveterate habits of licentiousness from our soul, and of driving away those active memories which rebel in our flesh and produce a turbulent flame, as to immerse oneself in the fervent love of instruction, and to search closely into the depth of the insights of divine Scripture.

When a man's thoughts are totally immersed in the delight of pursuing the wisdom treasured in the words of Scripture by means of the faculty that extracts understanding from them, then he puts the world behind his back and forgets everything in it, and he blots out of his soul all memories that form images embodying the world. Often he does not even remember the employment of the habitual thoughts which visit human nature, and his soul remains in ecstasy by reason of those new encounters that arise from the sea of the Scripture's mysteries.

Homily 1.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Lawrence Dewan, OP (1932-2015)

Fr. Lawrence Dewan died last week of pancreatic cancer. He taught philosophy at Dominican University College until this past December. His philosophical work was always excellent. Not much of it can be found easily online, but this website has a few samples of it, including his criticism of the River Forest school of Thomism and "The Importance of Substance", in which he argues that the problems of the Pre-Socratics are always with us.

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent III

This is virtue: that in his mind a man should be unoccupied with the world. As long as the senses have dealings with external things, the heart cannot have rest from imaginations about them. Outside of the desert and solitude, the bodily passions do not abate, nor do evil thoughts cease.

Until the soul becomes drunk with faith in God by receiving a perception of the power of faith, she can neither heal the malady of the senses, nor be able forcibly to tread visible matter underfoot, which is the barrier to things that are within and beyond perception by the senses.

Homily I (pp. 113-114)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Patterns in Teaching the Ring of Gyges

Leigh Johnson has a humorous post on what she can expect from students when teaching Plato's story of the Ring of Gyges. I teach the Ring of Gyges in both my Intro and my Ethics courses, in different ways; in my Ethics course, it is mixed in with a number of excerpts from the Republic at the beginning, to get students thinking about ethical matters at a more general level, and in my Intro course I bring it up in the context of looking at Plato's Gorgias. So, despite differences in the the context of teaching, I found much of what she said to be funy in a funny-because-very-true kind of way. I think I get a slightly greater variety of responses -- I always have at least one or two students who vehemently reject from the beginning the idea that Glaucon is right, for instance -- but pretty much everything she notes is something I've found in my own classes.

An interesting common pattern I've found is that students will often hold both that 'might makes right' is the way the world works -- they have difficulty quite expressing how -- but that this is not right; it's also common for students both to take the 'student relativist' path -- avoiding any discussion of truth as such, and holding that everybody's moral opinions are 'true for them' -- and yet still insist on a real direction of moral progress. (I suspect that this has something to do with the 'social construction' point noted in Johnson's post, but I hadn't thought of it in quite those terms before. It's certainly true that a number of my Ethics students later tend to like the Millian idea that morality is both made by us and yet also is governed by stable rational standards.)

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent II

Moderation adorns all things; for without moderation, even things deemed good become harmful.

Homily 1

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaac of Nineveh for Lent I

The fear of God is the beginning of virtue, and it is said to be the offspring of faith. It is sown in the heart when a man withdraws his mind from attractions of the world to collect its thoughts, wandering about from distraction, into reflection upon the restitution to come.

To lay the foundation of virtue, nothing is better than for a man to contain himself by means of flight from the affairs of life, and to persevere in the illumined word of those straight and holy paths, even that word which in the Spirit the Psalmist named a lamp.

Homily I (p. 113).

[Isaac of Nineveh, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, trs. Revised 2nd edition. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: 2011).]

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Isaac of Nineveh

For Lent I will be posting little excerpts from Saint Isaac of Nineveh, so I thought I would say something about him first.

Isaac of Nineveh, or Isaac the Syrian, is a seventh-century saint with an interesting distinction: he is the latest saint, historically speaking, to be commemorated on the liturgical calendars of the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. (The Church of the East did not accept the Council of Ephesus and the Oriental Churches did not accept the Council of Chalcedon.) That is to say, he is recognized canonically as a saint by every apostolic church accepting the Nicene Creed, and this despite the fact that the Church of the East and Oriental Orthodox split off from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox two hundred years before he was born. His feast day is January 28.

Relatively little is known of his life. He was born in Beth Qatraye, somewhere around modern-day Qatar, in the early seventh century. In the year 676, he was ordained Bishop of the important See of Nineveh, which was in modern-day Iraq. (Nineveh, in fact, is on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul, which was one of the oldest bastions of Christianity in Mesopotamia until last June, when ISIS took hold of it and turned the last of its dwindling Christian population into fleeing refugees.) Isaac does not seem to have found himself suitable for the task, although we do not know why. After a few months, he withdrew from the episcopacy and lived the solitary life on Mount Matout, and later, in his old age, a monk at a monastery at Shabar. He wrote in Syriac, but his writings were quickly translated after his death into Greek and thence into Latin, Amharic, and Slavonic, and thus he became widely read throughout the Christian world.

The primary source of texts I will be using for Mar Isaac is The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, trs., Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston, MA: 2011).


During Lent I will also be going through the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, for those who are interested. I see that D. G. D. Davidson will also be doing the Meditations for his Lenten Read-a-thon this year, so all the cool kids are doing it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Epictetus, Encheiridion

If one were to attempt to identify a universal guide to Stoic philosophy, you could not do better than The Handbook (Encheiridion) of Epictetus. Epictetus lived from about AD 50 to about AD 130 and would be a significant influence on all later Stoics; he has a genius for distilling its basic ideas, especially its ethical ideas, into practical recommendations; and the Encheiridion is to Epictetus himself exactly what its title says it is -- a handbook, a brief guide, a short distillation for practical purposes.

Epictetus, of course, wrote nothing. The primary work for his philosophy is the collection of the Discourses of Epictetus collected by Arrian, one of his students. The exact relation of the Encheiridion to the Discourses is unclear. It would be plausible to think of it as an abstract of the ideas of the Discourses, but not all of the content of the Encheiridion finds any clear correlation with ideas in the Discourses. This may be because we are missing some of the books of the Discourses (we have four books, and there are some indications that there were originally eight). Or it may be that the relation between the two is a bit more complicated than has usually been assumed.

You can read the Encheiridion online in English in the eighteenthicentury translation by Elizabeth Carter or in the nineteenth-century translation by George Long at the Perseus Project. Perhaps the most important commentary on the Encheiridion is that of Simplicius, which can also be found online.

The Thought

(1) Some things are in your power and some things are not. The very first sentence of the Handbook gives us one of its major themes. Some things are up to us -- our opinions, judgments, desires, aversions -- and some things are not up to us -- our bodies, our possessions, our reputations. Being able to distinguish between the two is a considerable part of freedom. Misfortune is not getting what you desire, so the person who is free of desire for things not up to him is someone who can never be unfortunate, "but if you are averse to illness or death or poverty, you will meet misfortune" (#2), because these things are not up to you. Because of this, whether your life is a good one depends in great measure on accepting that things outside your power really are outside your power: "Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well" (#8). If you go lame, it is your limb, which is not up to you, that has been interfered with; your will, which is up to you, is still intact (#9).

Likewise with everything around you: "You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours" (#14). We should act as if we were at a banquet (#14), not constantly reaching out our hands toward everything, but simply letting it come to us, if it does. Likewise with your role in society. We should be like actors in plays (#17), playing whatever role is assigned, and doing it according to our own skill, because we are not the ones who write the parts. (It is always worth remembering that Epictetus began his life as a slave.) And it is only by giving up on trying to control things we cannot control that we free ourselves of envy and live unconquered lives (#19).

As far as the things we cannot control go, everything happens as it should: targets are not set up to be missed (#27) and piety toward the gods requires acquiescing in what happens (#28). Impiety follows, in fact, from taking our good or bad to lie in things that are not up to us. Likewise, if people treat you badly, you need to remember that they cannot see things as they appear to you, but only as things appear to themselves (#42), and it is not you who are actually harmed by it. You should simply not worry about what others say about you, because this is not up to you (#50). You would recognize the absurdity of someone turning over your body to be tormented by anyone who came along, so why would you go about turning over your own mind to be tormented by anyone who came along, just because he insults you (#28)? No one can do you harm unless you turn your mind over them to be harmed (#30).

(2) Appearance is not reality. Our connection to the world is mediated by phantasia, appearance or impression, the sense and feel of it, so to speak. But appearance is not reality. Thus, when faced with an appearance, we should recognize that it is not the thing that appears. Instead of going how things appear, we should use reason to take into account the way they really are. Much of human misery comes from being carried away by appearance, in a way not appropriate to, or even inconsistent with, reality. Whenever we are faced with some sign usually taken to be of something bad (Epictetus uses omens as his example, but obviously applies to any kind of sign), we should recognize that the sign is a matter of appearances, for the use of things external to us, like our body or our property, or other people (#18). Whether it is really of something bad depends entirely on us, because, whatever it may signify, we may make the choices that allow us to benefit from it, no matter what it is -- and so it is in our power to make all omens good omens.

If something makes you afraid or miserable, it is your own opinion that makes it fearful or terrible; you have only yourself to blame if you are afraid or miserable. If you put your joy in a matter that is not up to you, like the beauty of your horse (#6), you are treating something over which you have no power as having power over you, and so you are enslaved. When someone is grieved by the loss of property or the death of a child, what actually weighs them down is their judgment about what has happened, which is based on the appearances (#16). If another person irritates or insults you, avoid being carried away by appearances by delaying your response until you can control yourself (#20). And we should be careful of insinuating our evaluations into things. If someone drinks a massive amount of wine, we should simply say that he drinks a lot of wine, not that he does badly; whether or not he does badly can only be determined on the basis of his judgment or actual decision, not on the basis of the appearances (#45).

We learn to recognize the will of nature, as opposed to appearance, by universalizing (#26). If someone else accidentally breaks a cup, we can all recognize that this is just a thing that happens, and one must bear it; so we should learn that this is true if we break our own cup. If a stranger's child dies, we recognize the awfulness of the appearance, but we are not carried away by it; we recognize that it is the way of things. And so, too, we should remember this when we face our own losses. But the same is true for pleasant appearances; they too must not be allowed to carry us away. Here we should also wait for an appropriate time, and delay our actions until we can control ourselves (#34).

(3) The philosophical life is a life of internals. All of this directly establishes that the philosophical life focuses on the internal rather than the external. We should not be concerned about what other people think about our choosing to live philosophically; we should rather simply do it so that we may have freedom and self-respect. When we consider something that we'd like, we should think it through. Suppose, for example, that you want to be victorious at the Olympic games (#29). You should not simply consider the victory but what leads up to it -- the discipline, the difficulty, the work -- and what may follow from it -- injury, losing -- and make your decision in light of that. You cannot be a philosopher by imitating philosophers as if you were a monkey; you must understand what is involved in it and act accordingly. Too many people hear or read some philosopher and think that if they imitate the way a philosopher talks that they have become a philosopher. Far from it! This is like thinking you can be victorious in the pentathlon without any training. To be a philosopher, you must be willing to trade everything you might lose -- honor, public office, reputation, wealth, or whatever -- for the freedom and tranquility of rational life. If you focus on the externals of philosophy, this is precisely what it is not to be a philosopher. The philosopher looks for benefit or harm to come from himself, not from anything outside (#48). If you want to be a philosopher, practice philosophy, not something else.

We should indeed take Socrates as our model, not in externals, but in his attitude toward things. If we want to know how to deal with a situation, we should ask what Socrates would do (#33). Socrates shows us that death is not dreadful in itself, by the way he died (#5). If we are looking for signs, we should approach them as Socrates would, giving priority to reason and only using them as supplements (#32). If you visit someone important, you should already be reconciled to the possibility of not meeting them (#33). Like Socrates, we should not make any ostentatious display of how philosophical we are; he was so far from ostentation that when other people asked him to introduce them to philosophers, he did not put himself forward, but took them to other people (#46). With anything that comes up, we should recognize that in our lives we are like athletes in a great contest and that every moment in the game matters. Socrates did this and became perfect in his own way; if we are not like Socrates, we should nonetheless live like people who want to be like Socrates (#51).

The Handbook ends with four quotations that Epictetus recommends that we keep in mind at all times. The first is from the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes:

Conduct me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my lot.
I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still.

The second is from Euripides, that very philosophical writer of tragedies:

Whoe'er yields properly to Fate is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of Heaven.

And the third and fourth are from Plato's Socrates (the Crito and the Apology, respectively):

O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be.

Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed; but hurt me they cannot.


Quotations are from Epictetus, The Handbook, Nicholas P. White, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis: 1983), except for the quotations at the end, which are from the Higginson translation at Perseus Project.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fortnightly Book, February 15

Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.

Lloyd Cassel Douglas (1877-1951) was born Doya Douglas in Columbia City, Indiana to a Lutheran family. Douglas began to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a Lutheran pastor, but at some point, for reasons unknown, became a Congregationalist. Around about the age of 50 he began writing a novel, Magnificent Obsession, which was published in 1929 and slowly became a major bestseller; Publisher's Weekly lists it as the #8 bestseller of 1932 and the #4 bestseller of 1933. It would be made into a blockbuster movie in 1935 (which would be remade into an even more massive blockbuster in 1954 starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman) and was adapted into radio by Lux Radio Theater in 1937 (and again in 1944), and by the Screen Guild Theater in 1941, and by the Screen Director's Playhouse in 1949. From then on out, Douglas was assured a place on the bestseller lists; Forgive Us Our Trespassers was the #6 bestseller of 1933; The Green Light was #1 in 1935; White Banners was #6 in 1936; Disputed Passage was #6 in 1939; The Robe (his most famous novel) was #7 in 1942 and #1 in 1943 and #2 in 1944 and 1945 and #1 again in 1953 due to the blockbuster movie; The Big Fisherman was #1 in 1948 and #2 in 1949. Douglas himself died in 1951 in California and is laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

For this fortnightly book we go back to the beginning, with Magnificent Obsession, the tale of a man who receives a coded journal from a highly successful surgeon, Dr. Hudson, that has hidden within it the secret to greatness and power; he, too, becomes caught up in Dr. Hudson's curious obsession. But the obsession is not quite what you might think. And the book as a whole is structured as a mystery and riddle, with the answer almost, but not quite, stated.

Given that I like classic radio and this book resulted in several notable radio versions, I'll certainly also listen to one or two of them -- at least the 1937 Lux Radio Theater version starring Irene Dunn and Robert Taylor (who were in the 1935 movie) and guest-starring Lloyd C. Douglas himself, but probably also, if I have the time, the 1941 Screen Guild Theater version starring Myrna Loy and Don Ameche, and the others if I have time. It will be interesting to see how close they are to the original; like most episodes of these series, the immediate predecessor of the radio version is the film rather than the book, and Hollywood in this era tends to up the romance and downplay almost everything else.