Saturday, February 11, 2017

John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights


Opening Passage:

When Uther Pendragon was King of England his vassal, the Duke of Cornwall, was reported to have committed acts of war against the land. Then Uther ordered the duke to attend his court and to bring with him his wife, Igraine, who was famed for her wisdom and beauty. (p. 3)

Summary: The unfinished Acts of King Arthur follows the Malorian tale, increasingly selectively, from the initial interventions of Merlin to the first small crossing of the line between Guinevere and Lancelot. The basic idea for the work as it stands is that it was to be a sort of summary draft, which would then be reworked by Steinbeck and made his own. Thus it is somewhat uneven. It is clear that Steinbeck did not, at the point that he was writing, quite know what to do with Merlin; in letters he remarks that Malory did not seem to know, either, and yet that the early tales concern the matter of building a kingdom, and thus are not easily left aside. He is able to do a bit more with Morgan le Fay, but it is only with the tale of Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt that he really begins to hit his stride, and it is chiefly with "The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake" that we begin to get a sense of what Steinbeck's final product might actually have been. It is somewhat sad, because it is entirely a might-have-been; Steinbeck went no further. The loss that is especially felt is that of the rest of the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, because Steinbeck's Sir Lancelot is truly a work of art.

In general, I am wary of modernizations of tales; they tend to strip out the ability of the originals to challenge us by insisting that everyone stand where we do. But Steinbeck's modernization of Lancelot is in many ways excellent -- the essentials are faithful to the original, but the modernization is done in such a way as to raise moral questions about modernity. It depicts with particular ingenuity the problem of restlessness, that ache for something more that never quite gets satisfied with the mundane, which is implicit in Malory but is brought out with special significance by Steinbeck. Having consolidated his kingdom and turned war into peace, King Arthur discovers that peace can be as dangerous to a kingdom as war when it creates the possibility of idleness, and the moral shallowness and restlessness to be doing something, anything, that idleness creates. To handle this, Arthur, on advice from Guinevere, encourages the idea that knights should not be idle but roam the country as enforcers of the King's Peace. But this is not really a solution; it is becoming clear that there is a restlessness to this, as well, and that young men wandering around fighting is perhaps not the most stable way to cure idleness. And it is this restlessness that Steinbeck seems to suggest will lead Lancelot and Guinevere to their downfall. Malory then goes on, after a tangle of knightly adventures (Gareth and Tristram) to the Roman episode and then the Grail. Both would tie easily into the theme of restlessness, although it seems clear that Steinbeck was skeptical of the value of the Roman episode and might well have dropped it entirely. But the restlessness sets up for the Grail. In one of the letters, Steinbeck notes that we tend to think that the Grail comes first, and then we get the Quest for the Grail; but that perhaps it is the other way around -- there was a need for a Quest, and the Grail happened to be the thing to serve. Out of restlessness we seek for something better and higher. But in the end, the restlessness never quite dies, and we continue on until our defeat. But sometimes, for a while, there is a taste of the higher and better, and the quest itself was part of that higher and better thing, even if it did end in loss.

There are many other aspects of the work that are excellent. Even though it is in the earlier section, when Steinbeck is still feeling his way, the account of how the code of chivalry and the vows of the Round Table arise out of the various knightly quests is very masterfully and engagingly done. The prose is balanced, and one of Steinbeck's primary goals, to convey something of Malory without bogging down as Malory sometimes does, is certainly met. It is a lovely book that never quite was, and, indeed, a quest that ended in defeat but was worthwhile, anyway.

Favorite Passage:

She valued him with her eyes and chose her words with care. "Were you other than you are I would not conduct you to your death," she said. "Nor would I ask a boon knowing you might survive. But you are Lancelot and I dare do both. When you have had your do with Sir Tarquin, will you promise me a service on your knightly word?"

"If I would not--would you conduct me?"

"I must search for a good knight to help me, sir."

"I see. It appears that there is no damsel in the world without a problem whose solution requires the jeopardy of my life."

"Have you not sworn service to damsels and gentlewomen?"

"I have indeed. But sometimes I wish I did not have to honor my oath so often." (p. 257)

Recommendation: Recommended.


John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Chase Horton, ed., The Noonday Press (New York: 1995).

Friday, February 10, 2017

Dashed Off IV

man as "the creature of the universe, who has the most ardent desire of society, and is fitted for it by the most advantages" Hume T.363 (2.2.5)

Causation is necessary for an account of scientific inquiry at the levels of sensation, measurement, experimentation, and construction and confirmation of theory.

"Charity sanctifies the most ordinary actions, pride corrupts the most sublime virtues." Sablière, Christian Maxims 9

Philosophical work is always done with a particular degree of illumination, which varies from person to person and, in one person, from time to time.

doing something solely for pleasure // doing something solely for financial gain

Receiving a literary work from an author, people naturally tend to try to to return it to the author. This movement of egress and regress is shown in the often crude attempts to turn literary works into esoteric autobiographies -- as people tend to return it, they will do so even if they do it badly.

A sedevacantism would require (1) a historical account of vacancy (2) an error theory (3) an account of appropriate action. Of these, (1) tends to be weak, but it is (3) that consistently tends to be the most sloppy.

Every conception of philosophy is a conception of human nature.

The natural tendency of signs is to greater and greater significance and meaning, through more extensive association.

Scripture as (a) a fund of images (b) a fund of doctrines (c) a salvation history

matter : sacrament :: intellect : Beatific Vision

One of the effects of grace is to give new meaning to signs.

the anointing of the sick and the divine lure

It is by Tradition that theology and philosophy are united.

catechesis in the mode of each of the gifts of the Spirit

rational resource collapse of intellectual opinions vs infrastructure collapse

Counting presupposes discreteness and duration. (Note that even when counting successive things, something must be used that endures the entire period of counting -- memory, marks, etc.)

fidelity tending to fecundity

You cannot get 'did' from 'could', but you can get it from 'could' and 'couldn't'.

proprioception -> causal powers (Reid)

philosophy as virtue (love of wisdom)
philosophy : wisdom :: charity : God
- but in many ways, and unsurprisingly, it seems more like friendship than a virtue

nl-implication : truth table allows MP and MP, but other rows undefined

miracles : extraordinary mission :: almsgiving : ordinary mission

salvation propter sacramenti fidem vs salvation propter fidei sacramentum

No one is properly a heretic who has the appropriate concern and respect for the finding of truth. (ST 2-2.11.2ad3)

to think about: the physical size and shape of money as a constraint on prices

the relation of philosophy and theology
(1) by causation: theology explaining metaphysical principles, at least in part
(2) by remotion: philosophy refuting objections to theology
(3) by eminence: theology going beyond philosophy in such a way as to put it in new light

commutative vs noncommutative relations among philosophers, positions, and schools

thematic HoP and interactional HoP

Scientists are remarkably cavalier about the histories of their fields given that these histories are the fundamental condition for scientific progress, and the thing that must be known to determine that one is actually progressing rather than wandering.

It is in light of the sublime that fragile beauty is most perfectly seen, as violets in the sun.

Truth obligates.

True docility is directed towards experience and prudence, not to rank or credential. Indeed, the latter should require the greatest docility.

plot and episode in history-writing

implicit vs explicit soliloquy/dialogue in history writing.
- Thucydides obv. example of latter. but even direst history above annal writing will have at least some of the former -- it's how human beings think narratively (annals avoid it only to the extent that they are snapshots/frames rather than connected narratives)
- generality is prob. a factor as well

questions conditional on other questions (branching futures)

prediction as a condition for rational application of power

In philosophical interpretation, we are interested in maximal consistency because the upper bound is what we do not know, and what has to be determined differently for each thing. The lower bound -- contradiction -- is trivially given by the logic of consistency. Careful interpretation requires knowing the other bound as well.

Matrimonium gaudet favore iuris.

Scripture as the milieu of the sacraments

problem-solving // prediction
(but in prediction you don't get to stipulate the problem -- you have to discover it and characterize it correctly, and thi sis the difficulty)

modality qua way of being, modality qua way of thinking, modality qua way of being thought

quantum uncertainty and the impossibility of strict experimental repeatability

objection-response networks

HoP: If one were to know the ideal course of an argument, one could study the causes of its deviations. Likewise, if one were to know the symmetry of possible positions, one could study asymmetries of actual positions. Think about this.

Every clause of the Lord's Prayer is a Christology. Jesus the Name of God, Jesus is the Kingdom of God, Jesus is He in Whom the will of God is done. Jesus is the Bread of Life, through Jesus our sins are forgiven, and by Jesus are we delivered from evil. But most of all, Jesus is He through Whom we can call God our Father, and His kingdom and glory and power will have no end.

ecological temperance

the importance of temperance to male/female relations

ritual as a structure of administration

clutter as relative to a teleology

The difference between good literary adaptation and bad is very often the difference between loving a thing and merely using it.

explanation as causal analysis + logical analysis

baptism as a sacrament of friendship

theological virtue : unity :: gifts of the Spirit : holiness :: x : catholicity :: the grace of orders : apostolicity
- one is tempted to set x = the graces of matrimony, since matrimony often functions in a quasi-character way

institutions for slowly pooling insights over centuries

the gifts of the Holy Spirit as facets of freedom

ritual & circumstances (topics)
ritual & deliberate circumstantial signs

chasing from heaven the silver bees / that swarm above the tall fir trees

induction // diagrammatic argument in mathematics

Father : Law of Nature :: Son : End in Itself :: Spirit : Kingdom of Ends

Purgatory is penance after absolution.

It is in the nature of genuine love that acts of love inspire the desire to love.

rising to the challenge as a moral activity and an important element of moral life

the playful collection of conceptions

What God teaches us in law is worked in us by grace.

the savoring of knowledge

the juridical aspect of teaching

the playfulness of insight

sacraments as communications
instrumental use of signs for uniting persons

arguments like stars in the philosophical heaven

Wisdom clarifies the ends of charity.

The Eucharist remits temporal punishment due to sin by inciting charity and devotion.

the Christian philosopher as sign of divine silence

asceticism // remotion

temeprance and the principle of hierarchy of goods

the courtliness of angels

Through faith we hold to the love God has for us; through hope we yearn for union in love with God.

To receive tradition completely is to hand it on.

Matrimony is a school of charity in showing how every good action can be an act of love, and also in showing how love can be both dutiful and free.

Deism has never been a stable intellectual position -- historically, it is always easily upset by just a slight shift in what arguments one is willing to consider as at least promising.

A distinction needs to be made between unclear theism and deism.

on compatibilism -- the Diamond of freedom is clearly compatible with some Boxes (deontic or temporal, for instance). The question is what Diamonds the Box of physical necessity (or whatever necessity the compatibilist uses) is compatible with, and whether any of these can actually fulfill the functions which we attribute to freedom

being, living, and thinking as end-endowing activities (you can analogize entelechy on both sides)
- obv being would be the most controversial member of the list on many views
- conditions for existing, conditions for living, conditions for thinking
- in each case one can consider the esse and the bene esse

aptness for beginning to be, aptness for continuing to be, aptness for completing one's being

progressive aspect of tense // perpendicularity

weak since: X was true at some point since a time when Y was true.
strong since: X has been true since a time when Y was true.
- the same can be done with until
strong since & until // relative Box

since & until in suppositional reasoning (e.g., subproofs, reductios, etc.)

more-or-less operators (seem to work like ∃)

Note that Basel seems to divide the ecumenical councils into the eight holy ecumenical councils (Nicaea to IV Const) and additional general councils (Lateran, Lyons, Vienne, Constance, Basel).
Constance divides the council into eight universal and three general (Lateran, Lyons, and Vienne).

the implicit role of the concept of health in evolutionary theory

Marital consent is not a consent to sexual intercourse but to a consortium or societas involving mutual power over bodies.

liturgical charisms (e.g., the Roman Rite its simplicity even in complexity, the Byzantine Rite its celestial semblance, the Maronite its doctrinal richness)

containing parts and contained parts in Harvey's account of the heart

"For God, indeed, is especially wonderful in His saints; but the impress of His divine virtue also appears in those who shine with excellent power of mind and spirit, since high intellect and greatness of spirit can be the property of men only through their parent and creator, God." Leo XIII

Honesty sometimes requires shutting up and listening.

endoxa as quasi-phenomena (like phenomena, they are part of what must be accounted for)

Who does not speak wisely is wiser when silent.

the building of argumentative resources as part of argumentative strategy

The natural response to arguments based on hypotheticals is to seek more information about the hypotheticals.

Intelligence not ordered to common good is intrinsically disordered.

What is living is more stable than what is dead.

the market function of an artifact

"And children seem to be a bond of union." Aristotle

Bayesian epistemology cannot capture the pragmatic, anticipatory aspect of belief

As my thoughts in hours steep,
here I lie, too bored to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
for at that I have failed.

Gal 1:1 and the divine authority of Jesus

Mill & dystopia in speech to Parliament March 1868

categorical imperative formulations (or naturalized versions) adapted and applied to Church catholicity, dignity, autonomy of the Church

to treat Christ always as an end in Himself and never as a means

to increase what tends to the salvation of souls and the attainment of the Beatific Vision

the virtue ethics of divinization (which is exactly what infused virtue is)

the body as composed of natural signs (both selfward and otherward)

There are no nonmodal facts; even distinguishing something as a fact presupposes modalities. Truth and falsehood are themselves modalities. Quantifiers are modal operators. 'Fact' itself seems to be an implicitly modalized term.

the post-medieval er as an era of studied dissimulation

the mereology of partial confirmation

mutualistic symbiosis of churches of different rites
- this is facultative rather than obligate
- ectosymbiotic and endosymbiotic versions; conjunctive and disjunctive versions

the freeborn Church vs the church as handmaiden of the state

the grace of integrity

things philosophy studies as properly necessary vs things philosophy studies as subalternately necessary vs things philosophy studies as conditionally necessary

"An unsuccessful conspiracy always strengthens the power against which it has been directed." Ludwig von Pastor

history as an art of relevance

A religion placing strong emphasis on history will also emphasize reenactment.

Aristotle's advice about the mean applied to reasonable judgment (avoid more opposed extremes, avoid easier extreme, beware of bias)
- the notion of the more opposed extreme is particularly interesting in this context

participatory vs nonparticipatory autonomy

retrospective vs anticipatory introspection

richness of a character in fiction as related to predictability (anticipative richness) and to memorability

Ask of every theory of metaphor: "How would this adapt to a theory of fiction?"

All wisdom has something of the infinite in it.

Sometimes by 'doubt' we mean active doubt and sometimes we mean temptation to doubt.

The Anointing of the Sick is the sign of the victory of repentance.

The inviolability of conscience springs from the inviolability of truth.

God gives us bad popes to remind us of what popes are actually supposed to be doing.

the mother in 2 Maccabees as a type of the Church

Ecclesiastical reform is something that only ever succeeds through many small actions.

Acts of mind dispose it to other acts.

The sensus fidei is only properly known in confidelity.

The primary goal in the liturgy of the Mass or Divine Liturgy is not to be beautiful but to be courtly, to greet the Lamb upon His Throne; its beauty should follow from this.

the aspiration to common good as intrinsic to the nature of charity

the relation between radication of virtue and gradations of virtuous activity

People invest in their anticipations.

Horror as a genre requires an unusual degree of participation by its audience.

prayer as the principal instrument of ecclesial tradition (Bossuet)

faith, hope, and love as super-prudence, super-resolution, and super-friendship

Probable inferences in real life tangle up with each other; considering a few such inferences in isolation is always a toy-modeling of real probable inference.

Formulations of abstract ideas combine with empirical information to specify probabilities; it is impossible to get probabilities from empirical particulars alone.

supererogations // miracles

global skepticism // total war

baptism & faith -> creed
baptism & hope -> spirituality (working out one's salvation), evangelization
baptism & love -> Church

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Till the Lights of Ages Fall

The Ancient Village
by Isaac Williams

And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard.

Let me still love thee in thy quietude,
Sweet sylvan village ! and thou, aged rook,
Who sitt'st sole sentinel in ivied nook,
Survivor of thy noisy brotherhood !
And I with thee, in thine own pensive mood,
Could linger, till the lights of ages fall
Around us, like moonbeams on tap'stried hall,
And saintly forms come forth, and virgins good,
Who gave their days to Heaven. From that lone pile
Avaunt, rude change, thy disenchanting wand,
And let the holy Cross linger awhile !
Ah, feather'd Chronicler, would that from thee
Thou couldst forefend Art's all-transforming hand,
And guard thy hoary haunts of sweet Antiquity.

Government Ethics and Product Endorsement

Kellyanne Conway has recently gotten into some trouble from comments on a TV show:

Conway used an interview with Fox News on Thursday morning to criticize the decision by Nordstrom to discontinue Ivanka Trump’s clothing line from its stores. Conway said, “I do find it ironic that you have got some executives all over the internet bragging about what they have done to her and her line, and yet, they are using the most prominent woman in Donald Trump’s, you know, most prominent his daughter, using her, who has been a champion for women empowerment of women in the workplace, to get to him,” Conway said. “I think people could see through that. Go buy Ivanka’s stuff! I hate shopping, and I will go get some myself today.”

Because of this, an ethics complaint has been filed against her. The reporting on this is, incidentally, atrocious; I had to click through a number of news reports before I discovered who had filed the complaint (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), and no news report that I encountered at any point identified the regulation she was said to break (5 CFR 2635.702, and also 31 USC 1301, although I think CREW is obviously stretching and straining with the latter). There is no excuse for covering an ethical or legal violation and not telling people exactly what regulation or law was violated and, in this day and age, there is no excuse whatsoever for failure to link to the relevant regulation or law. But to continue.

There's no question that she violated the ethical standard here:

An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity, including nonprofit organizations of which the employee is an officer or member, and persons with whom the employee has or seeks employment or business relations.

Her comments were explicitly an endorsement of a product, and as the CREW complaint correctly notes she pretty clearly did so while serving in an official capacity, and the particular exceptions allowed later, in 702(c), do not apply (she wasn't fulfilling a statutory requirement nor was she giving an official recognition of compliance or achievement in the context of an agency program).

It's perhaps worth pointing out that ethical regulations do not exist to identify moral culpability, but to avoid even the neighborhood of it. Even if you think that what she did was morally acceptable, and that she isn't really guilty of anything, and even if you were right, it would not matter; moral guilt is not the issue. You don't create ethical regulations to catch the ethically blameworthy but to keep people away from doing things that are ethically blameworthy in the first place. The violation of the ethical standard is clear enough. (It's also perhaps worth noting that this kind of ethical violation is not particularly uncommon; it's just not usually this public.)

One question that should be asked by reporters, but that apparently is not being asked, because journalists are apparently not very good at their jobs, is whether Conway has received the ethics training that executive branch employees are supposed to receive. One of the several minor scandals that were orbiting the big Clinton scandal (and thus obscured by it) was that it turned out that there was no record of several senior members of the Clinton state department, including Clinton herself, having ever undergone the required ethics training. Getting official records on this sort of thing is not easy, due to privacy issues, but there are plenty of people -- Conway herself, White House representatives -- of whom one could at least ask the question.

The CREW complaint is addressed to the Office of Government Ethics and the White House Counsel. I confess I was puzzled for a while as to why the complaint was addressed to USOGE, which is an advisory and training agency, and still am not fully sure of why this was done (this should not be taken as any sort of negative comment; getting a full grasp of what investigates and enforces what in government ethics law is not particularly easy, and I certainly do not have a complete grasp of it). The proper investigative authority is the agency in question -- since Conway's official role is Counselor to the President, the White House itself is the investigative authority, which is why CREW addressed the letter to White House Counsel. To be sure, since it's not criminal violation, the Director of USOGE can recommend investigation or disciplinary action to the agency in question -- which would be the Office of the President -- and if the agency does not follow the recommendation, he can notify the authority capable of forcing the agency into compliance -- but that's always the President, which makes that rather moot here. The Director can also initiate proceedings, but this is pretty clearly for ongoing ethical violations (and the employee's return to compliance even in those cases normally stops the proceedings, so it's typically only obstinate ongoing ethical violations); Conway's violation was a one-time event. I suppose the point is just to request that the USOGE makes a recommendation to the White House; I'm not sure what else the Director of USOGE is supposed to do on receiving the letter. [ADDED LATER: And actually the House Oversight Committee, which also sent a letter to OGE (PDF), says exactly that: they request that the Director make a recommendation on disciplinary action to the White House.]

And what will be the upshot? Again, the point of government ethics regulations is not to rule on whether it was strictly ethical or not, nor to go around punishing people -- the point is to enforce compliance with standards to prevent certain kinds of unethical things from happening. So Conway is bound to get a talking-to (and according to some reports the White House claims she has), and in principle more serious action could be taken, if the White House decided it was appropriate. I suppose Congress could get involved, but it's pretty much impossible to determine beforehand what the upshot of that would be. And that's pretty much the whole story. It may seem a bit disappointing, but, again, the point of government ethics regulations is not to make a dramatic show or go around punishing individuals but to increase compliance with standards that protect the integrity of government.

Conway got into this hot water because she went beyond barely explaining the President's own now-infamous Nordstrom tweet, in response to (I believe) Nordstrom removing Ivanka's clothing line:

This does not violate government ethics regulations -- 5 CFR 2635.702 does not apply to the Office of the President. The President is an elected official receiving authority directly from the people whose powers are determined by the Constitution, and this is quite a significant difference. There is no regulation preventing a President from giving product endorsements, for instance -- although it is the sort of thing that Congress could count as a "high crime or misdemeanor" for the purpose of impeachment. But this wasn't even a product endorsement; it was a criticism of a business action. Even if there were regulations that applied, which there aren't, there is no possible way you could have a regulation delineating what the President can and can't criticize in public.

To say that no government ethics regulation was violated, however, does not eliminate the question of whether this was an action appropriate for a President to engage in. That is not government ethics, in the strict sense; it is political ethics. And the primary standard for what is acceptable in political ethics is less statute and regulation and more the standard to which the citizens hold their elected officials. I confess I find myself going back and forth on this particular one; I can see the argument for it being inappropriate, but the tweet itself is not an official government communication of any kind. (It was retweeted by the official POTUS account, and that is certainly a plausible ground for criticism. But (a) it could very well not be President Trump himself who decided to retweet it, since the account is handled by someone somewhere in the bureaucracy, and (b) it raises the questions of what a government Twitter account is officially supposed to be doing, and what its ethical purpose should be, and I don't actually know the answer to those questions.) The Presidency is not like a civil service job; the President is President all the time no matter what he does, so 'inappropriate to his office' is a far more complicated notion than it is when we are talking a political appointee or civil servant. However, it undeniably raises conflict of interest issues -- it would be very ethically wrong for a President to go around bullying businesses into carrying his daughter's line of clothes, and while it's difficult to argue that a tweet with a bare criticism does much in that direction, it's also a step in a bad direction. On the other hand again, though, creating a conflict of interest or the appearance of one is not in itself a form of ethical wrongdoing; it is a form of ethical risk, which is not the same thing. Going beyond risk to culpability is not always straightforward, and I think would require more than just this tweet.

In the end, I think I regard this as being a form of intemperance; intemperance is not usually a matter of violating a strict obligation, but of not reining oneself in when it would have been better to do so. Intemperance has characterized Presidential actions in various degrees for a very long time; I don't think it's at all a controversial thing to say that we are likely to see a lot of it over the next several years.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Barbarism of Reflection

A nice summary of a key Viconian idea, from Alexander Bertland's IEP article on Vico

As indicated in the section on the Ideal Eternal History, Vico sees that history is cyclical. Vico claims that history begins in a barbarism of sense and ends in a barbarism of reflection. The barbarism of reflection is a returned barbarism in which the common sense established by religion through poetic wisdom holding a society together has been broken down by individual interests. The interests are spurred because individuals each think according to their own conceptual scheme without concern for the society, which makes it barbaric.

Vico describes the returned barbarism this way, “such peoples [in the barbarism], like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure (NS 1106).” These private interests lead into a civil war in which everyone betrays everyone else. This takes humanity back to where it started -- individual giants acting solely on their own individual passions.

Vico holds that the barbarism of reflection (which he also calls the 'barbarism of the intellect') is worse than the barbarism of sense; the barbarism of sense, what we usually think of savagery, has 'generous fierceness' -- while it's a state of war of all against all, it's of the kind against which you can fight back or from which you can run away. But the barbarism of reflection has 'vile fierceness' -- it's a war of all against all in which people speak soft words and play innocent out of malice and cunning. There are no more fair fights, because the preferred weapon is the poisoning of social relations. It is the corruption and then the dissolution of the senso commune that binds the community together.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Violet and Vastness and Gold

The Sun Cup
by Archibald Lampman

The earth is the cup of the sun,
That he filleth at morning with wine,
With the warm, strong wine of his might
From the vintage of gold and of light,
Fills it, and makes it divine.

And at night when his journey is done,
At the gate of his radiant hall,
He setteth his lips to the brim,
With a long last look of his eye,
And lifts it and draineth it dry,
Drains till he leaveth it all
Empty and hollow and dim.

And then, as he passes to sleep,
Still full of the feats that he did,
Long ago in Olympian wars,
He closes it down with the sweep
Of its slow-turning luminous lid,
Its cover of darkness and stars,
Wrought once by Hephæstus of old
With violet and vastness and gold.

A Poem Draft

This is based on a medieval French tale in the Arthurian cycle, the Lay of Melion, one of the best of the lesser known Arthurian romances. What I have here is little more than a rough draft summary of the story; the original has some splendid passages in which you can tell that the poet enjoyed the challenge of conveying what it would be like to be a man in wolf's form. The story goes back at least to the twelfth or thirteenth century. You can tell it is quite early from the prominence of Sir Yder, an extremely popular character in early Arthurian legend who almost drops out completely much later; it is sometimes thought that this may be because French authors began drawing on his stories to write about Sir Lancelot.

Sir Melion

In Arthur's day there was a knight,
Melion was his noble name,
of venerable family
from strange realms distant and foreign,
and he held from them a fair heirloom,
a magical ring, truly old,
by which he could take a wolf's form,
swift, gray of hame, with teeth most fierce.
He vowed never to love a maid
who had loved any other man;
thenceforth no maid would speak to him,
and his spirit became heavy.

To the country Melion went,
hunting, as he loved, in the woods.
Greatest of hunters he became,
swift of foot after bird and beast,
and one day, hunting a great stag,
in a small glade to rest he stopped,
and saw a maid on a palfrey,
fair of dress and her eyes perfect;
she spoke to him, and he to her.
She said she had loved none but him;
Melion kissed her thirty times.
By such things are young men taken!

Swift and joyful was their wedding;
two sons they had, and joy a while.
But on a time they hunted stag
and caught sight of one swift and strong,
which the lady begged him capture
lest she die, for its meat craving.
He showed her the marvelous ring.
Two were its stones, one white, one red;
the white gave the form of a wolf,
and the red restored from the white,
each by being held to the head;
and he gave it to her to hold.

"Know that you hold my life, my death;
without this ring, I am but doomed,
and am a wolf for all my days.'
Thus a man's trust may run deeply.
Melion beckoned to his squire,
and they removed his hunting suit.
His lady touched him with the ring,
and he became a wolf and ran,
pursuing the scent of the stag.
Then the lady said to the squire,
"Let him hunt,' and they from there fled,
and to Ireland they both did fare.

Melion the captured stag
returned to his lady and squire,
but only their scent was left behind.
He tracked them to a wooden boat,
and he sneaked aboard in dark night,
and huddled down, and made no noise.
When to Ireland the ship had come,
he leaped out; the sailors clamored,
almost caught him, but he ran free,
ran across tall hills and wide fields,
and lived his life an outlaw wolf
until he could confront his wife.

Melion wandered through wide forest,
stealing sheep and cows from the fields,
and fell in with ten wolves, a pack,
and they were by him persuaded;
together they through the woods roamed,
and did all things under his rule.
For his wife was the king's daughter,
and to draw her out took sly deeds.
A great host the king did gather
to take the wolves in the greenwood.
The wolves, surprised, were torn by dogs;
Melion alone escaped death.

Reason's power saved him from harm,
but a wolf has little to help.
Alone again, Melion grieved,
for his loss and his hurt were great.
But in that day came Arthur king
to make a treaty, end conflict.
Melion saw their shields shining,
hanging like sigils on their ship.
Swiftly he sped, wolf Melion,
praying in his heart for mercy.
Soon he came to the old castle
where rested the knights of the king.

Strong were the guards, and fierce their swords,
and wolf Melion could not speak.
Among them he ran, risking death,
and before the king he knelt down.
Arthur marveled at his tameness,
and bade the wolf be well treated.
Soon the king of Ireland joined them,
with many a courtier and thane,
bringing joy and peace and honor.
The wolf trotted by Arthur's horse,
and they came to a great palace
and at table took their places.

Light was in the air, and gladness;
the food and folk were glorious.
Melion at Arthur's feet sat--
until he saw nearby the squire.
Fury took him, he leaped with speed,
and the squire by shoulder he seized.
Surely the squire would have been killed,
if not for the knights of the kings!
Great was the noise and commotion;
they came at the wolf with cudgels.
But Arthur cried, "This wolf is mine!
Do not harm him for love of me!"

Then Sir Yder said, "This is strange;
the wolf has only this man seized.
Surely there must be a reason!"
Then Arthur replied, "Yes, you are right.
Squire! You will confess your dark deeds,
or you will at once surely die!"
Wolf Melion gripped the traitor;
the squire begged for mercy and told the tale,
how he fled with his lord's lady
and in wolfish form his lord left.
The Irish king went, grim and dark,
and brought the ring from his daughter.

The wolf was glad to see the ring,
deep in his spirit he rejoiced;
before the king on knees he fell,
and touched his tongue to Arthur's feet.
Almost King Arthur used the ring!
But Sir Gawain suddenly rose:
"Do not do it, my uncle good,
not before these noble folk and great;
take him to a private chamber
that unashamed he may be changed!"
With Yder and Gawain, Arthur
took the wolf to a different room.

The ring was touched to Melion,
and the wolf's head became a man's,
and, now a man, he was naked,
and with gladness he felt as new.
He was wrapped in Arthur's own cloak;
the servants were sent to get clothes.
The court at Melion marveled,
pitying his great misfortune.
The Irish king brought his daughter,
knowing that she might be destroyed.
Melion said, "Use the ring's stone."
But Arthur said, "Recall your sons."

And for her life the Irish begged,
and all of King Arthur's barons,
and for he was a man, not wolf,
Sir Melion with mercy wept.
In Ireland he left her and sailed
to his own home across the sea.
Thereafter Melion would say,
"However fair your love may seem,
never in all things trust your wife;
she may prefer you as a wolf."
And thus you have heard my whole tale;
all good people say it is true.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Music on My Mind

Unleash the Archers, "Time Stands Still"

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Evening Note for Sunday, February 5

Thought for the Evening

In a recent post at "Philosophical Percolations", Jon Cogburn makes the following claim about the relation between moral evils and natural evils, and claims that it is common sense:

Moral evils would not be moral evils if the natural evil corresponding to the event brought about [by] the perpetrator of moral evil weren’t itself bad. Moreover, we rank the badness of moral evils in terms of the badness of the corresponding natural evils.

This is not so very clearly the case, and even if it were true -- which there is reason to doubt -- it would not be commonsensical.

There is some obscurity to the claim due to well known problems about how exactly we are to understand 'natural evil'. Cogburn is getting the notion from philosophy of religion, but there is no unified account of natural evil in the field. For instance, it is often used exclusive of moral evil; thus, for instance, dying by murder would be a moral evil and dying by accident might be a natural evil. Perhaps getting around this is why Cogburn talks about the corresponding natural evil; I am not sure. There is a broader question about what actually counts as natural evil in the first place; in general, people stipulate pain and death, and anything beyond that would be highly controversial. This is of some relevance because what things one takes to count as natural evil is obviously relevant to the cogency of the claim.

If we simply confine natural evils to pain and death, there are clear moral evils that (as far as common sense goes) do not involve natural evils. Injustices are particularly good examples; while there are injustices that involve pain and death, many injustices do not. For instance, if I deliberately, in order to prevent you from getting rich, switch out your winning lottery ticket with a losing lottery ticket, unbeknownst to you, or if for the same reason I deliberately prevented you from learning about your inheritance, most people would say that that was unjust. But it involves no pain or death -- just a denial of something that, unbeknownst to you, you have a right to have. One could perhaps claim that impediment to possible future good is a natural evil, but this makes natural evils quite profligate (lots and lots and lots of things impede possible future goods), and would cause serious issues for the claim as used in the context of Cogburn's argument. There are a great many injustices that involve legal status, or social status, or the like that involve no pain and no death. Lawyers and accountants and politicians have come up with a great many inventive ways to avoid actually hurting or killing people while doing what most people would consider moral wrong.

Even with injustices that do involve pain or death, it does not seem that common sense consistently ranks the moral badness according to the corresponding natural badness. Killing someone through negligence is commonly recognized as bad, but not, I think, anywhere near as morally bad as raping someone without killing them; but common sense seems to be quite consistent in treating death as just about the worst natural evil there is (some kinds of long-term and unusually terrible torment being perhaps the only exceptions). Rape is an extraordinarily evil thing; most people would regard being raped as a far greater moral evil inflicted on them than many other things that would involve a great deal more pain.

We also get obvious cases of purely internal wrongdoing. If I hate you and despise you out of envy for the good you do, without doing anything against you (perhaps I simply avoid you and seethe in my hate and envy), most people would (I think rightly) regard this as a more serious moral wrong than pinching you in a moment of temporary unjust anger; but the former involves no discernible natural evil at all. (This is, incidentally, one reason why vainglory and envy were traditionally considered the most wicked of the seven capital vices -- they are almost purely moral wrongs, and thus, for example, can increase indefinitely rather than being limited by the limits of how much damage you can do or the opportunities for physical expression. While the general run of common sense doesn't have anything that thought out, it does, I think, have room for purely moral wrongs with no physical expression.)

I have tried to stick with cases involving no natural evil, since this is straightforward; trying to assess the ranking claim in other cases is difficult from the beginning, because how does one measure the relative badness of a natural evil? I do not know; and I don't think common sense has any fully consistent way of ranking pain and death. Emergency rooms use rough-and-ready metrics, but these are primarily for getting a more specific sense of actual symptoms that goes beyond "I hurt here", not for assessing badness.

It's always handy to ask what kind of background theory a claim would require in order to be true. In this case, what is needed in order to link moral evil and natural evil in this way? The apparent counterexamples or puzzle cases often arise from the fact that we don't make moral assessments solely on the bases of consequences but on other things that can mess up any attempt to create a tight correlation between moral and natural evil. So, for instance, people can take intent and official responsibility into account when assessing moral evil, but neither of these has any effect whatsoever on the corresponding natural evil, nor is either dependent on any such natural evil. So it seems that Cogburn's claims require a purely consequentialist account of moral assessment. (One cannot imagine any Kantian agreeing with either of Cogburn's claims, for instance.) In particular, I think it requires an account in which there is no fundamental difference between moral evils and natural evils beyond the bare fact of intent (i.e., beyond the thing that distinguishes between the ideas of 'moral' and 'natural'), while not taking degrees or specificity of intent to affect assessment of moral badness. This is not common sense, which is pluralist about what can go into moral assessment, and certainly includes things that do not involve any actual natural evils.

Links of Note

* Italy's Greatest Detective and Master of Disguise, at "The History Blog", on Giuseppe Dosi

* Casandra Cheser, It's Not Okay for You to Pass Judgment on How Many Kids I Have

* Luke Barnes, Good God!, a review of Sean Carroll's The Big Picture

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes, The Logical Gaps, on the richness of the history of logic

* Peter Turchin, The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America (from 2013)

* TheOFloinn discussed Aquinas's First Way recently.

* Thomas Powers, The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb, reviews a recent publication of letters between Werner and Elizabeth Heisenberg. I haven't read the book in question, but my own conclusion about the Heisenberg 'failure' from other reading I have done is that Heisenberg was leading the German nuclear research program away from anything to do with weaponry and deliberately kept its research even into nuclear piles at the minimum he could while still keeping young physicists in physics and out of the army. It sounds like the letters fit this view of the situation.

Currently Reading

John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights
Mary Beard, SPQR
Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth
G. R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
Giambattista Vico, On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians