Saturday, June 18, 2016

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound; Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound


Opening Passages: From Prometheus Bound:

Now we have come to the plain at the end of the earth,
the Scythian tract, and an untrodden wilderness.
And you, Hephaistos, must turn your mind to the orders
the father gave you,--to discipline and pin down
this outlaw here upon the lofty ragged rocks
in unbreakable bonds of adamantine chains.
It was your flower, the gleam of civilising fire,
he stole and handed it over to mortals. Therefore
he must pay the price of such a sin to the gods,
that he may be taught to bend to the dictatorship
of Zeus, and give up his ideas of helping men.

And from Prometheus Unbound:

Monarch of Gods and Daemons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.

Summary: Prometheus was a Titan, an elder god, but in the great Titanomachy between the Titans and Zeus, Prometheus supported Zeus, and in part by the aid of Prometheus's flawless foresight, Zeus conquered and became king of the gods. New regimes wipe away the works of the old. And one of the works of the old regime was an animal, cave-dwelling and lowly, peopling the earth. Zeus ordered their destruction, that a new race might be raised to walk the earth as a sign of the power of the gods, but Prometheus instead stole the heavenly fire from the workshop of Hephaistos and brought it down to them. With the divine gift of fire came all the arts that build cities and make them thrive. And with it he brought hope, which covered up one kind of knowledge that they had before, knowledge of the day they would die.

It is a great temptation in reading Prometheus Bound to sympathize with Prometheus. The introduction to the work in the Heritage Press edition I was reading, by Rex Warner, sums it up with the question, "What, if anything, has Prometheus done wrong?" Of course, we are inclined to think in those terms because Prometheus was our champion; we were the animals he saved from destruction, we were the animals to which he gave a shard of divinity. But right there we see the problem. There is actually never, at any point, any question of what Prometheus did wrong. The human race was slated by the gods to end and be replaced. And Prometheus defied the gods by stealing for us something that belonged to the gods themselves, and he gave it to us, a people who had no right to it and could never deserve it, and made us complicit in the defiance of the gods, so that the whole of human life, every flame and every craft, was a sign of rebellion against the authority of Zeus.

Because of this, Zeus orders Hephaistos to bind Prometheus. Hephaistos is reluctant to do so against a brother-god, but he is made to do so by the Kratos (Authority) and the Bia (Coercive Power) of Zeus. (In my translation, Kratos is translated as Power and Bia as Violence, in keeping with the translator's tendency to play up the notion of Zeus as arbitrary dictator, for he, too, has a natural human bias in favor of Prometheus.)

It is interesting that Prometheus frees mankind by hiding from us our death-days, because Prometheus even in punishment defies Zeus by hiding from Zeus the day of Zeus's overthrow. Prometheus is the son of Themis, the order of things, identified by Aeschylus with Gaia, the earth that endures, and his mother had told him a secret: One of the women with whom Zeus would mate would bear a son who was greater than his father, as Zeus was greater than his father, and by the hand of that son Zeus would fall as Chronos fell to Zeus, or Ouranos to Chronos. It is fated that if Zeus does not avoid that union, he will fall. It is perhaps not so surprising that Zeus is so harsh in his punishment: his new regime has been betrayed by one of its allies, and that treacherous ally knows of a secret flaw that will destroy it all. But Prometheus will not tell the secret as long as he is bound; and Zeus cannot unbind him as if the authority of Zeus could be blackmailed or as if the laws of the gods were subject to any kind of negotiation.

It is an apparently insuperable impasse. And that, of course, is the point. We know that some things will have to happen. Zeus will one day give clemency to the less belligerent Titans. Heracles will one day free Prometheus, as Prometheus sees. Zeus will give his blessing to the human use of fire. And it all must be occur by deadline, so that Zeus will not beget a son more powerful than himself. Aeschylus is not a modern writer; he is not so shortsighted that he does not realize the overthrow of Zeus would be the overthrow of everything. The regime of the gods is, after all, the regime of all Greek civilization. The problem must be solved. But it is an impressively knotted problem: the source of civilization and the power without which it cannot exist are in conflict, and as the clock ticks down the doom of the latter draws closer, unless some reconciliation can be found.

In Aeschylus' play, Kratos comments that "there is no one except Zeus who has freedom". Shelley's poem is devoted to the utter repudiation of such an idea. The story of Prometheus is always and ever a depiction of humanity. One of the things Aeschylus does very well is to interlink the gift of fire and the arts and crafts of civilized life. The fire of Aeschylus is outward-facing; it is the power to form cities, the thing by which we have achievements that are divine and yet somehow at the same time a thing we do not have full power to control. But Shelley's Promethean gift, while covering the same ground, is all inward-facing. It is the power of reason and will not to be enslaved. Aeschylus' Prometheus is our benefactor; but Shelley's Prometheus is our exemplar, the liberator of Heaven's slaves. And given that, it is inevitable that Shelley will let Zeus fall. The power of Zeus cannot coerce the mind, and because Prometheus knows the secret, all of that power cannot give him victory. Zeus will be defeated and Prometheus unvanquished:

Ay, do thy worst. Thou art omnipotent.
O'er all things but thyself I gave thee power,
And my own will.

This is not to say there is no nuance. Shelley is entirely in the Prometheus camp, and his Zeus is nothing but an oppressor and tyrant. But while Shelley's Prometheus might shout out defiances like that above in a moment of grief, it is not his considered thought. As he says, "I wish no living thing to suffer pain." He is "firm, not proud". It is Zeus's own tyrannical mind that will lead to his destruction, during which he will wish for the mercy of Prometheus. And after his fall there will be no tyrants to succeed him.

And that is our victory, as well: the mind of man is "unextinguished fire". Shelley explicitly and deliberately develops his imagery and narrative in terms of the internal operations of the mind; we are Prometheus, in a sense, and thus his victory is the template for our our own heroisms.

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

The difficulty that all of this faces is that there is nothing in this that is really a story. Despite all the beautiful pomp of word and declamation, Prometheus literally conquers by not doing anything. Zeus just gets pushed off the stage at the appropriate moment without much ado, and, God no longer in heaven, all's well with the world. Aeschylus' play has very little actual plot, but the overall narrative suggested in it, both background and foreshadow, is a truly epic story. But Shelley's poem is not a play, and it suggests no grand story. It could hardly do so: it is about what happens in a mind that refuses to bend. And, of course, the story of what happens in a mind that refuses to bend is -- that it refuses to bend, and that's it.

I am not fond of assimilating poem and poet too easily, but it does remind me of the Romantics themselves, or at least Shelley's little group. They all talked like Titans, but they were mostly just a group that talked about their Titanic selves; the victories over convention to which they looked were things that they expected to fall out inevitably from their refusal to comply with convention. Zeus will just fall on his own, any day now. Although perhaps that is not entirely fair. After all, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, written a few years earlier, is subtitled "The Modern Prometheus" and it is perhaps with Mary's novel, rather than Aeschylus' play, that Percy's poem should really be compared. That would actually make a very interesting study in itself.

There is much that is excellent in Shelley's poem, though. I think the interaction between Prometheus and his wife Asia is excellently done. It is quite subtle -- they are often not together in the poem and they do not spend much time talking at each other -- but it suggests a very great depth, and the poem does much better giving us the suggestion of something epic through their relationship than it does with Prometheus' victory over Zeus.

Favorite Passages: From Prometheus Bound:

Now it is fact, and no longer in words
that the earth is convulsed.
Out of the deep the roaring of thunder
rolls past, and flickering fire of the lightning
flashes out, and the whirlwinds
roll up the dust, and the blasts of all storms
leap at each other,
a war of the winds,
and the air and the sea are confounded.
These, most clearly, are strokes from Zeus
coming upon me to cause me fear.
O my glorious mother, O Heaven
with circle of light that is common to everyone,
you see me and see this injustice.

From Prometheus Unbound:

From all the blasts of heaven thou hast descended:
Yes, like a spirit, like a thought, which makes
Unwonted tears throng to the horny eyes,
And beatings haunt the desolated heart,
Which should have learnt repose: thou hast descended
Cradled in tempests; thou dost wake, O Spring!
O child of many winds! As suddenly
Thou comest as the memory of a dream,
Which now is sad because it hath been sweet;
Like genius, or like joy which riseth up
As from the earth, clothing with golden clouds
The desert of our life.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, both, although you will need to be in a patient mood to get the most out of Shelley.

Flaming Sword

Take the case of the flaming sword; just as in it the natures of the fire and the steel are preserved distinct, so also are their two energies and their effects. For the energy of the steel is its cutting power, and that of the fire is its burning power, and the cut is the effect of the energy of the steel, and the burn is the effect of the energy of the fire: and these are kept quite distinct in the burnt cut, and in the cut burn, although neither does the burning take place apart from the cut after the union of the two, nor the cut apart from the burning: and we do not maintain on account of the twofold natural energy that there are two flaming swords, nor do we confuse the essential difference of the energies on account of the unity of the flaming sword. In like manner also, in the case of Christ, His divinity possesses an energy that is divine and omnipotent while His humanity has an energy such as is our own. And the effect of His human energy was His taking the child by the hand and drawing her to Himself, while that of His divine energy was the restoring of her to life.

St. John Damascene, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book III, Chapter XV.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Dashed Off XIII

Donne's "The Apparition" and the quasi-horror of certain aspects of sexual life (of course, these aspects are widely drawn upon in actual horror, as well)

appropriateness, obligation, inner strength, balance

"The criterion of a successful theory is that it enables us to understand its predecessors in a newly intelligible way." MacIntyre

The correction of another requires completion in the correction of oneself.

Sartre's 'existence precedes essence' is a misleading way of saying 'will precedes second nature'.

Every pleasure presupposes some end other than itself.
Seeking pleasure for the sake of pleasure is not the same as seeking pleasant things because they are pleasant. Pleasure being a sign of good, pleasant things may be sought because they are prima facie goods; but to seek pleasure for its own sake is to treat a sign of good as itself the good to be sought.

Delight functions like confirmation.

From love of common good comes law that can be good.

Components of Infallible Teaching
- efficient
(1) Christ, who is God, as primary cause
(2a) bishop of Rome precisely as successor of Peter, as secondary cause
(2b) or bishops together acting as successors of apostles, as secondary cause
(2c) or Church as whole as being from the apostles, as secondary cause
- formal cause
(3) definition arising from bishops
- material cause
(4) living faith of Church as a whole
final cause
(5) to guard and expound the apostolic faith

Even when, among those affected by our actions, there are like interests, those interests may be more remote or proximate to us with respect to those who have them -- e.g., in the difference between family and strangers.

Self-interest is not a replacement for either duty or virtue

Almost all popular error consists in a failure to think thing through in order to the end. That is, they arise from patchwork approaches and incompleteness.

serenity of conscience as an integral part of hope

(1) needs of life that are higher than pleasure: to live, to be a part of the human race, to sustain the human race, to reason and seek truth, to love God
(2) the beauty of moderation
(3) avoidng that which poorly expresses human dignity


paradox of testing: To test something properly and adequately requires knowing already what one tests.

conceptual analysis as an ineliminable part of testing

Saints are venerated so that
(1) we might be spurred on by their example
(2) we might have their protection
(3) we might be crowned by their victories
-- all of which express aspects of the love uniting us to them in God

philosophical pedagogy as resource management, logistics

the importance in ethics of the conception of misusing one's own body

Experiment presupposes a form of classification.

bureaucratic government as supercorporation

the matter of chrismation as imposition of hands in sign of the Holy Spirit -- the Apostles were granted special signs, but their successors use the general prophetic sign of the holy oil for anointing

Arguments begin 'outside' us, so to speak, and are only then brought inside, moving from being entertained to being accepted.

language as telepathy
the science fiction trope of telepathy as an exploration of language

deceptiveness as a privation (cp Descartes)

Prudence is a kind of purification.

Truth is the primary principle of freedom.

(1) We have the idea of substance.
(2) The idea of substance cannot originate from sensation alone
the idea of substance as a significant part of our reasoning about existence

What makes modalism about the Trinity wrong is the lack of subsistence.

The idea of being in general is implicit in the intellectual itself. (final cause)

universality of the ideas the possibility of the thing (Rosmini)

Withing a stable society, power arises from stable procedural privileges.

Ideas not maintained degrade over generations.

analogy as a tool for identifying explananda

intelligibility as goodness for intellect

natural classification as a limit concept (certainly Duhem, arguably Whewell as well)

natural law : analytics :: casuistics : topics
then it would seem that the theory of temptation would be to sophistics and something hortatory to poetics & rhetoric

"If there be no moral Truth, there is no Truth." Whewell

temperance as the fence-building virtue

Some kinds of advice can only be given by someone in the right circumstances.

The tradition of human life itself is a grave responsibility.

New Natural Law basic goods and necessitas humanae vitae

temperance and the symbolism of deeds that go beyond mere gestures

nonmeasuring experiments
need for units of measurement for precision
development of means of measurement
measuring experiments
need for unifying formulae
development of unifying formulae
integration of formulae into theories

The distinction between what we need and what we want can only be made by reference to what we are.

measurement as always within a universe of discourse

Affinity structures search; difficulty structures search. (Can these two be taken as comprehensive?)

Critias read as an acount of the degeneration of tradition

Claims about teleology require taking things abstractly, e.g., 'the heart' in "The heart pumps blood".

The perfection of the universe is obviously not something that can be assessed according to only one standard.

All completion requires final cause.

Every moral standard will tend to apply to very different kinds of action very differently.

If there were a best possible world, the only way we could understand the idea of it would be as a best possible story. And just as there is no best possible story, there is no best possible world.

Prudence is judged by ends, and appetites by means determined by prudence.

the preciousness of fragile goods

Moral standards must regard the nature of the agent -- as capable of acting, as having ends, as able to grow, as capable of decision, etc.

All that is has a goodness worthy of being.

family-making as anti-collectivist (arising from the tendency of collectivism to be anti-familial)

(1) suppositum (2) predicable (3) principle (4) operation (5) cooperation

Everything is either inherently principle or has a principle.

Intelligible constraints structure sensible events.

We can fall in love with intelligible patterns.

temperance the virtue of critique

The story appropriate to moral law is an endless story.

Through the lens of the sacraments we see that everything is a sign of heaven.

the art of failing well

metaphors as microarguments
naming as microarguments

Vital identity, i.e., identity of a living thing through time, indicates that the form of the living thing is substantial, not accidental.

Because reason is capable of taking all things as instruments, it can be difficult to determine at times whether the reason exhibited is in the principal or instrumental agent, if the behavior of the instrument is sufficiently sophisticated. This is a flaw in the Turing Test -- it fails to distinguish evidence of the computer being intelligent from evidence of the designer being intelligent and having foresight with respect to the instrument.

Descartes' position on final causes directly implies that the only evil is moral evil; natural evil requires natural ends.

To take profit alone as the measure of success in a corporation is like taking calories alone as a measure of health in an organism.

parrhesia as required for tradition

Diversity of experiences is useless without coherent integration.

vestment as part of rhetoric, governed by similar principles (decorum, etc.)

Causal 'mechanisms' are just classifiable causal (inter)actions.

predestination as structure of merit

Grace works the penitential in us.

the base, the ignoble, the disgraceful, the shameful, the beastly, the foul, the turpid, the vile, the brutish

real numbers as representing tendencies of certain sequences

urgency, impact, and trend in analyzing philosophical problems (relative to an argument or position: closeness to argument [directness of implciation], effect on argument, parity [effect on other arguments])

Many atheistic arguments from evil boil down to indirect claims that it is immoral for the human species to exist; this is especially true of popular versions.

Shepherd & manipulability accounts of causation

production processes as messy computations

wholesomeness of family as a need of human life

All scientific progress exhibits the fact that human beings are rational animals.

compatibilism : pantheism :: libertarianism : theism :: hard determinism : atheism

practical means // middle terms

(1) What can be is, when it is made to be. This is change.
(2) What is changed is changed by what makes it be.
(3) If a thing is made to be, it is not itself the thing that makes it to be.
(4) If a thing is made to be, what makes it to be, must be.
(5) To make a thing be may be a change in what makes it to be.
(6) If there is a chain of things made to be by things that are made to be things that make things be, there is a first in that chain.

Error magna pars miseriae est.

the structure of inquiry and Malebranche on inclination

The four causes are required to have a full account of measurement.

The seal of confession pertains to the sacrament of confession itself, so that (for instance) anyone who accidentally overhears a confession is morally and legally bound by it.

simplicity of means and richness of effects in prudence judgment and decision

most reality in the least compass as a mark of great literature

Art/craft/skill is that which is concerned with coming-to-be insofar as it is within one's power.

the testing of philosophical arguments by examining their analogues in other fields

A Quick Trip to Italy, Miscellanea VII

Vatican City

Most of my best pictures were used in the main posts, so I have fewer extras for Vatican City that rise above at least tolerable.

More pictures of St. Peter's from a distance:

And another of the Pinecone:

A bust of Pericles near the Round Hall:

A floor mosaic:

A glance toward the Pian Museums, which we didn't have a chance to visit:

A ceiling detail just before the Map Room:

Various minor details within St. Peter's, mostly from a distance being jostled by crowds:

Another outside shot:

to be continued

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Truth and Light

I've noted before the Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, despite the fact that it always gets overlooked. Today is an important Sikh holiday, the Martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, which I've talked about before.

The most important verse in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, is the Mul Mantar: "God is One, His Name is True, the One who Does, Fearless, Hateless, Deathless, Birthless, Self-Enlightened, Guru's Gift; Pray!" The True (Sat = what is, what endures, what is sure) is a major part of Sikh religious belief, and, indeed, much of its doctrine can be construed as a meditation on Truth. The word occurs in Sikh greetings like Sat Naam (His Name is True) and Sat Siri Akal (Truth is Highest and Deathless). It is in great measure because it is so emphatic on Truth, as such, that Sikhism is monotheistic. The Sikh moral ideal is to be in accordance with Truth. The role of the Guru is to unite the student with Truth, as Guru Nanak says of the Guru (SGGS 17.14):

If it pleases Him, I bathe in the Pool of Truth, and become radiant and pure.

God is Truth and the Lover of Truth, and the fulfillment of human life is union with Truth.

This is often put in terms of light (jot). The Guru Granth presents each human being as existing by the gift of God, and at the fundamental heart of who they are is a light derived from divine Light. All of Sikh practice is concerned, directly or indirectly with reuniting the light within with the divine Light. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib is essentially a hymnbook; it is sung. It is also the perpetual Guru, carrying forward the light of Guru Nanak, and by this light manifesting the divine Light. So by singing its hymns, one unites oneself to the Guru, and thus uplifted one contemplates through the Guru the divine Light from which one comes; in doing this, one purifies oneself, and so makes oneself fit to unite again with the divine Light after death. This basic idea of our light uniting with divine light, joti jot samana, is found everywhere in Sikh thought, and is that which corresponds to moksha in Hinduism, liberation from the cycle of reincarnation.

An old poem of mine trying to capture various elements of Sikhism in a short form (Amritsar, of course, is the Sikh holy city):


Although the sea divides us, in Amritsar I stand;
my heart rests in the warmth of its nectar-golden sand.
In a vessel, clay and calm, made by the guru's hand,
I feel blessing pouring down: for in Amritsar I stand.

When time pools all around me like some silent sarovar,
I am in Ramdaspur; and, whether near or far,
my heart is by those waters as they shine beneath the stars
around the golden temple of blessed Amritsar.

When trouble overtakes me I flee to the fort of steel,
I shelter in the city with the sacred pools that heal,
I search for the jot of light where the psalms of gurus peal:
this world is all mirage, but Amritsar is real.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Practice Before Theory

I say, moreover, that Geometry,— speculative Geometry,—was extracted from practical Land Measuring. History informs us that this was so ;_that the Geometry of the Greeks arose out of the Land-Measuring of the Egyptians. And this is of itself most likely; for in every subject, Practice comes historically before Theory; Art before Science. Man acts first by the guidance of his practical Reason, and afterwards unfolds his convictions before the eye of his speculative Reason; thus striving to discern the Truths on which his action depends, and the Ideas which it involves. He constructs Squares and Pyramids and Ellipses, directed by his practical Geometrical Faculty; and then, by the aid of the same Faculty in a speculative form, he discovers the properties of Squares and Pyramids and Ellipses, and finds out demonstrations of these properties, and resolves these demonstrations into their simplest shapes, till he makes them depend upon Axioms, which all are ready to acknowledge after a little reflection, but which no one saw the true place of before. These Axioms are assented to by all thoughtful persons; and to say that they are assented to by all who have steadily considered them, is one of the simplest ways of saying that they are self-evident.

William Whewell, Lectures on Systematic Morality, Lesson V

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beauty on Beauty Called Us Back

The Hunting of the Dragon
by G. K. Chesterton

When we went hunting the Dragon
In the days when we were young,
We tossed the bright world over our shoulder
As bugle and baldrick slung;
Never was world so wild and fair
As what went by on the wind,
Never such fields of paradise
As the fields we left behind:

For this is the best of a rest for men
That men should rise and ride
Making a flying fairyland
Of market and country-side,
Wings on the cottage, wings on the wood,
Wings upon pot and pan,
For the hunting of the Dragon
That is the life of a man.

For men grow weary of fairyland
When the Dragon is a dream,
And tire of the talking bird in the tree,
The singing fish in the stream;
And the wandering stars grow stale, grow stale,
And the wonder is stiff with scorn;
For this is the honour of fairyland
And the following of the horn;

Beauty on beauty called us back
When we could rise and ride,
And a woman looked out of every window
As wonderful as a bride:
And the tavern-sign as a tabard blazed,
And the children cheered and ran,
For the love of the hate of the Dragon
That is the pride of a man.

The sages called him a shadow
And the light went out of the sun:
And the wise men told us that all was well
And all was weary and one:
And then, and then, in the quiet garden,
With never a weed to kill,

We knew that his shining tail had shone
In the white road over the hill:
We knew that the clouds were flakes of flame,
We knew that the sunset fire
Was red with the blood of the Dragon
Whose death is the world’s desire.

For the horn was blown in the heart of the night
That men should rise and ride,
Keeping the tryst of a terrible jest
Never for long untried;
Drinking a dreadful blood for wine,
Never in cup or can,
The death of a deathless Dragon,
That is the life of a man.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Fitness of Words

At school, (Christ's Hospital,) I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master, the Reverend James Bowyer....I learned from him, that poetry, even that of the loftiest and, seemingly, that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. In the truly great poets, he would say, there is a reason assignable, not only for every word, but for the position of every word; and I well remember that, availing himself of the synonymes to the Homer of Didymus, he made us attempt to show, with regard to each, why it would not have answered the same purpose; and wherein consisted the peculiar fitness of the word in the original text.
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter I]

And the meaning of fine words cannot be made 'obvious', for it is not obvious to any one: least of all to adults, who have stopped listening to the sound because they think they know the meaning. They think argent 'means' silver. But it does not. It and silver have a reference to x or chem. Ag, but in each x is clothed in a totally different phonetic incarnation: x+y or x+z; and these do not have the same meaning, not only because they sound different and so arouse different responses, but also because they are not in fact used when talking about Ag. in the same way. It is better, I think, at any rate to begin with, to hear 'argent' as a sound only (z without x) in a poetic context, than to think 'it only means silver'. There is some chance then that you may like it for itself, and later learn to appreciate the heraldic overtones it has, in addition to its own peculiar sound, which 'silver' has not.
[J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 234 to Jane Neave in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Carpenter and Tolkien, eds., Harper Collins (London: 1990) p. 310]

There's a lot of poetry here at Siris. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is purely philosophical -- since graduate school I have been irritated by philosophers of language whose conception of language is poorly suited for accounting for the existence and facts of poetry, which is one of the most obvious and important of all linguistic phenomena. There are works in the philosophy of language that lead one to suspect that the authors have never had any more poetry than they had been forced to read by the end of high school. And this is a problem. It is in poetry that one really puts language to the test, as it were, probing its limits and drawing new functions and nuances out of it, turning it on itself and on its head, playing with aspects of it that are often ignored. It is, of course, not only poets who do this -- but it is one reason why there's a never-ending river of poetry here.

Poetry deals, among other things, with finer shades of meaning. As Tolkien notes in the above passage, 'argent' and 'silver' are synonyms, but they are not, in fact, used in the same way. Substituting 'silver' for 'argent' is unlikely to affect the truth value of a statement, but it is likely to affect the "fitness of the word" that Bowyer, as described by Coleridge, attempted to show. Thus, as Tolkien again notes, 'argent' has "heraldic overtones". We would also often recognize 'argent' as being in a higher formal register than the more common 'silver', and as having poetic associations that need not be borne by the more common word.

One way to put this might be to say that 'argent' and 'silver' label closely analogous classes in what have come to be different systems of classification, and part of the difference between the two lies in their suggestion of which approach to classification is in play. We have to say that it is only a suggestion, since we can perfectly well transfer across classifications, as when someone uses overly formal words for comic effect, but our ability to do this depends on there being a difference in the first place.

Philosophy of language for a considerable portion of the past century has tended to be influenced by the Fregean division of meaning into force, sense, and tone, with the lion's share being concerned with sense. The above differences of meaning would usually get classified as differences in tone (coloring or shading, in Frege's own preferred manner of speaking), and that would be the end of it, since in practice 'tone' usually works as nothing more than the wastebin -- you throw in the things that you aren't using and never consider them again. This is problematic, since, as I've noted before, there's no reason to think that the same kinds of things get put into the wastebin each time. Something that can be treated as a mere difference of tone on one interpretation or occasion can, on another interpretation or occasion, be interpreted as a significant difference of sense. Whether or not the difference between 'cur' and 'dog' matters for the truth value of a statement depends in part on context and how one chooses to take the words in that context. The same is true of common derogatory terms, racist epithets, euphemisms, and the like. Again, it's a matter of classification: if you are classifying someone as a Norwegian, that's a different way of classifying them than if you classify them as a Noggie, because the latter includes as part of the classification a negative evaluation that is missing from the more neutral term, one that we can either ignore or take to be important. And doing so affects whether what is being said counts as accurate or inaccurate.

But even when the difference does not affect the truth value of a statement, it's an error to think that the difference is really insignificant. It can still affect the "fitness of words", their appropriateness to their use and context. In communication, there are always many ends, and some words will just fit those ends better than others in a given case. Unlike discussions of sense and reference, however, in which meaning is artifically divided in order to keep all the easy parts of the meaning together and to make it possible to ignore all the subtle parts, taking seriously the fitness or unfitness of words requires careful comparative work and also poetic experimentation.

Doctor Evangelicus

Today is the feast of St. Anthony of Padua, Doctor of the Church. He was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon in about 1195, and died in Padua in 1231; he was canonized within a year of his death. He joined the Franciscan order, and soon became renowned as a homilist. His sermons, which are typically concerned with tracing concordantiae or parallels and analogies between different parts of Scripture, are the reason for his liturgical status as Doctor of the Church, but he is perhaps most famous for being the patron saint of lost articles, and the primary association of him with his preaching in the popular mind is the hagiographical legend of his preaching to the fish:

St Anthony being at one time at Rimini, where there were a great number of heretics, and wishing to lead them by the light of faith into the way of truth, preached to them for several days, and reasoned with them on the faith of Christ and on the Holy Scriptures. They not only resisted his words, but were hardened and obstinate, refusing to listen to him.

At last St Anthony, inspired by God, went down to the sea-shore, where the river runs into the sea, and having placed himself on a bank between the river and the sea, he began to speak to the fishes as if the Lord had sent him to preach to them, and said: "Listen to the word of God, O ye fishes of the sea and of the river, seeing that the faithless heretics refuse to do so."

No sooner had he spoken these words than suddenly so great a multitude of fishes, both small and great, approached the bank on which he stood, that never before had so many been seen in the sea or the river. All kept their heads out of the water, and seemed to be looking attentively on St Anthony's face; all were ranged in perfect order and most peacefully, the smaller ones in front near the bank, after them came those a little bigger, and last of all, were the water was deeper, the largest.

When they had placed themselves in this order, St Anthony began to preach to them most solemnly, saying: "My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment. God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm. He has given you fins to enable you to go where you will. To you was it granted, according to the commandment of God, to keep the prophet Jonas, and after three days to throw him safe and sound on dry land. You it was who gave the tribute-money to our Saviour Jesus Christ, when, through his poverty, he had not wherewith to pay. By a singular mystery you were the nourishment of the eternal King, Jesus Christ, before and after his resurrection. Because of all these things you are bound to praise and bless the Lord, who has given you blessings so many and so much greater than to other creatures."

At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, endeavouring as much as was in their power to express their reverence and show forth their praise. St Anthony, seeing the reverence of the fish towards their Creator, rejoiced greatly in spirit, and said with a loud voice: "Blessed be the eternal God; for the fishes of the sea honour him more than men without faith, and animals without reason listen to his word with greater attention than sinful heretics."

And whilst St Anthony was preaching, the number of fishes increased, and none of them left the place that he had chosen. And the people of the city hearing of the miracle, made haste to go and witness it. With them also came the heretics of whom we have spoken above, who, seeing so wonderful and manifest a miracle, were touched in their hearts; and threw themselves at the feet of St Anthony to hear his words. The saint then began to expound to them the Catholic faith. He preached so eloquently, that all those heretics were converted, and returned to the true faith of Christ; the faithful also were filled with joy, and greatly comforted, being strengthened in the faith. After this St Anthony sent away the fishes, with the blessing of God; and they all departed, rejoicing as they went, and the people returned to the city.

The Little Flowers of St. Francis, Part I, Chapter XL.

Because of the tale, Anthony is often pictured with fish: a reminder that the gospel must be proclaimed even if there is no one to hear but the fish.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Apostolorum Apostola

The feast of St. Mary Magdalene was recently raised from the status of Memorial to Feast proper, which usually belongs to Apostles and a few others. As some have noted, this actually is a restoration of sorts, since the Magdalene's feastday has historically been quite important, and has been surprisingly low-ranked for about half a century. Because it was mentioned in the letter accompanying the decree, the following passage from Aquinas's Commentary on the Gospel of John (c. 20, l. 3 [2519]) is noteworthy, and worth reading in full context:

Notice the three privileges given to Mary Magdalene. First, she had the privilege of being a prophet because she was worthy enough to see the angels, for a prophet is an intermediary between angels and the people. Secondly, she had the dignity or rank of an angel insofar as she looked upon Christ, on whom the angels desire to look. Thirdly, she has the office of an apostle; indeed she was an apostle to the apostles insofar as it was her task to announce our Lord's resurrection to the disciples. Thus, just as it was a woman who was the first to announce the words of death, so it was a woman who would be the first to announce the words of life.

[St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 13-21, Larcher and Weisheipl, trs. CUA Press (Washington, DC: 2010) p. 266]

The Latin, for those who are interested:

Ubi notandum est triplex privilegium, quod Magdalenae est collatum. Primo quidem propheticum, per hoc quod meruit Angelos videre: propheta enim est medius inter Angelos et populum. Secundo Angelorum fastigium, per hoc quod vidit Christum, in quem desiderant Angeli prospicere. Tertio officium apostolicum, immo facta est apostolorum apostola, per hoc quod ei committitur ut resurrectionem dominicam discipulis annuntiet: ut sicut mulier viro primo nuntiavit verba mortis, ita et mulier primo nuntiaret verba vitae.

Maronite Year LIII

Fifth Sunday of Pentecost
Philippians 3:7-14; Matthew 10:1-7

Our praise falls short of Your mercy, O Lord;
You are above all praise.
With Your resurrection You did great deeds,
beyond what we can say.
Truly, this is the day the Lord has made;
with David we rejoice,
with voices glad and strong.
This is the unequaled day, crown of feasts.

Twelve disciples You did call to Yourself,
with great authority:
power against evil You gave to them.
Simon Peter was first, and Andrew, too,
James and his brother John,
Philip and Bartholomew and Thomas,
Matthew and James, the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddeus and Simon,
and the traitor (may we not be like him!).

Through every land the zealous apostles
made disciples for Christ,
enduring hardship to preach to far realms,
like bright lamps enlightening all the world.
Their love burned ardently,
lighting the candles in Your holy Church,
which passed the flame of truth that they received
until our souls were lit
and we received the apostolic fire.

We count as loss even our greatest gains
compared to love of Christ,
for You, O Lord, we wish to our credit,
and You, O Lord, are He in whom we are.
By Your resurrection,
by participation in Your Passion,
we are formed to the pattern of Your death,
burning with Your bright love,
pressing forward for the prize through Your grace.

We praise You who formed us to Your image;
You brought us salvation
and from Your mercy You came to bring hope.
We give thanks for Your gifts,
for You became man and fell into death
that we might live again,
that death itself might die,
and we will always proclaim that wonder.