Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Introduction

Opening Passage:

For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America and discussed at countless firesides. It was a novelty in the way of excursions—its like had not been thought of before, and it compelled that interest which attractive novelties always command. It was to be a picnic on a gigantic scale. The participants in it, instead of freighting an ungainly steam ferry—boat with youth and beauty and pies and doughnuts, and paddling up some obscure creek to disembark upon a grassy lawn and wear themselves out with a long summer day's laborious frolicking under the impression that it was fun, were to sail away in a great steamship with flags flying and cannon pealing, and take a royal holiday beyond the broad ocean in many a strange clime and in many a land renowned in history!

Summary: The Innocents Abroad is an extremely varied and variable work, ranging from the fairly serious to the bitterly satirical to the lightly self-depreciating; it lampoons tourists and travel books but also at times stops a moment in wonder at the scene; it mixes enjoyment and impatience and boredom, sometimes in very quick succession. In this it is perhaps the travel book that most perfectly captures the impression of travel abroad as an experience. It is lopsided in how it handles it, due to Twain's tendency to the acidic and the acrid, but it shows more of the actual experience of travel than most travel books do.

The work is often quite biting, but even at its most acerbic it brings out two aspects of travel that both are major features of human nature and lead us often to make fools of ourselves: our passion for story and our taste for cashing this out physically. One of the constant satirical elements throughout the work is the often considerable disparity between places as described by people and places as actually experienced. Especially in the Holy Land, Twain mocks the descriptions given by the most travel books (often described or paraphrased under thinly veiled modifications of name, like 'Grimes' for William Cowper Prime). But there are many other manifestations of this. The tour guides always play up the importance of the place, to a point that is sometimes fantastic (the most hilarious cases of this in the book are in Genoa). More tellingly, travelers themselves filter their experience through the descriptions they have heard, so that instead of saying what they actually experienced, they simply repeat what other people have said the experience is (the most notorious case of this is in the attack on "Old Masters" before The Last Supper in Milan, for which Twain was rather sharply criticized on occasion, and the funniest is perhaps in Nazareth when different pilgrims keep coming up and describing the local women as 'Madonna-like').

There is not much point in going places just to be in other places. We travel in order to add things to the stories we tell about ourselves and to guarantee that our story will not be in quiet, boring isolation, but link up in various ways to stories we like to hear. Thus we tell stories -- fantastic ones if we cannot get historical ones -- about why this or that place is a place to be, or this or that thing is a thing to do. It is something we do everywhere, but it becomes obvious that it is being done when we are put in new situations, and when we come up against other people doing the same thing in ways that are unfamiliar to us. It is boring, and depressing, and oppressive, to be nowhere of significance for no reason of significance; but a local legend, however slight or however silly or however blatantly false, at least gives us material to work with. Twain is fairly good at recognizing this aspect, and it is the basis for some of the better humor of the book. He is aware that it doesn't really matter for the purposes of the travel that the story being told by the tour guide is just utterly and fabulously impossible, or so implausible as to strain any credibility, or even obviously a money trap for tourists, if it gives you something to tell a story about. Even if you think their story utterly ridiculous, it gives you the opportunity to tell a great story about how ridiculous it was. Even if you find it exasperating or irritating, you can turn evil to good later with jokes about how exasperating and irritating it was.

He is not so very good at recognizing that he is doing the same kind of thing. This is a bit odd, since hyperbole is a standard instrument in his repertoire, but he sometimes seems to lose track of the extent to which he is exaggerating. This is most obvious in the most bitter and biting parts of the book. Twain hates hypocrisy, and the bathos that it generates, and he has a taste for hunting it down without mercy. I suppose ruthless hypocrisy-hunting is a very, very American vice; but it is a vice, and, what is more to the point, it is an artistic vice as well as a moral one. Twain is effusive and generous if he comes expecting hypocrisy and finds none -- as in his praise of the Convent Fathers of Palestine, which briefly jars him into recognizing his failing -- but we are talking about human beings, who instinctively protect their ignorances, weaknesses, and malices with masks. If you hunt for hypocrisy, you will usually find it somewhere. And incessant hypocrisy-hunting can spoil jokes, ruin beauty, disturb peace, stir up spite, and crab with meanspiritedness the work of saying things well. Twain recovers from these spoilages quickly, because the work is constantly passing on to other things; but they happen frequently.

Human beings, however, do not merely tell stories, cannot merely tell stories, with words; they must have physical objects as well. I was a bit surprised at the extensive role of relics in the book. Of course, a lot of the places they visit are holy sites that preserve relics and purported relics, whether it be the bone of a saint or a yet another bit of the True Cross or a rock of historical importance. But one of the things we find throughout is the tendency of travelers to relic-hunt themselves -- chipping off bits from a wall, taking away water from a river, and so forth. Twain notes how much damage is done by this practice, but also how completely ineliminable it seems to be. We feel the need for our stories to have physical manifestations, and we get them however we can get them. It is a matter of self-preservation that our modern tourist spots make up artificial souvenirs for tourists to take as proxy-relics rather than carrying off the main attractions, as they are naturally inclined to do.

It is always difficult to know how seriously to take subtitles, particularly in a humorous work. The subtitle of The Innocents Abroad is The New Pilgrim's Progress. Part of the reason is surely just that the book is a sort of pilgrimage and a great deal of it is spent making fun of the pilgrims. One wonders, though, if there is something more to it. I'm reminded a bit of Hawthorne's "The Celestial Railroad", in which the bite and humor of the story lies in the sharp contrast with Bunyan's work, and I wonder if there is some of that here, as well. The voyage is a pilgrimage, but it is a pleasure excursion as well. The two are not mutually exclusive (as we see in The Canterbury Tales), but Bunyan's Christian is certainly not on a pleasure excursion at all, and I wonder if the contrast is one of Twain's subtler jokes -- for he is at times capable of subtle jokes, although he pretends not to be.

Favorite Passage: This is a long paragraph to excerpt, but many of Twain's better passages are his long ones, in which he can find the best mix for his humor, which requires that appreciative joking outweigh sarcasm; Twain can do the latter in an instant, but always needs a bit of a development for the former.

The donkeys were all good, all handsome, all strong and in good condition, all fast and all willing to prove it. They were the best we had found any where, and the most 'recherche'. I do not know what 'recherche' is, but that is what these donkeys were, anyhow. Some were of a soft mouse-color, and the others were white, black, and vari-colored. Some were close-shaven, all over, except that a tuft like a paint-brush was left on the end of the tail. Others were so shaven in fanciful landscape garden patterns, as to mark their bodies with curving lines, which were bounded on one side by hair and on the other by the close plush left by the shears. They had all been newly barbered, and were exceedingly stylish. Several of the white ones were barred like zebras with rainbow stripes of blue and red and yellow paint. These were indescribably gorgeous. Dan and Jack selected from this lot because they brought back Italian reminiscences of the "old masters." The saddles were the high, stuffy, frog-shaped things we had known in Ephesus and Smyrna. The donkey-boys were lively young Egyptian rascals who could follow a donkey and keep him in a canter half a day without tiring. We had plenty of spectators when we mounted, for the hotel was full of English people bound overland to India and officers getting ready for the African campaign against the Abyssinian King Theodorus. We were not a very large party, but as we charged through the streets of the great metropolis, we made noise for five hundred, and displayed activity and created excitement in proportion. Nobody can steer a donkey, and some collided with camels, dervishes, effendis, asses, beggars and every thing else that offered to the donkeys a reasonable chance for a collision. When we turned into the broad avenue that leads out of the city toward Old Cairo, there was plenty of room. The walls of stately date-palms that fenced the gardens and bordered the way, threw their shadows down and made the air cool and bracing. We rose to the spirit of the time and the race became a wild rout, a stampede, a terrific panic. I wish to live to enjoy it again.

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Catherine Benincasa

Today is the feast of St. Catherine Benincasa of Siena, Doctor of the Church. The following is from a letter to Daniella of Orvieto. Sr. Daniella had fallen ill and thus was unable to complete her usual penitential practices and fell into a depression because of it, suspecting that she was damned; so St. Catherine counsels her to keep her sense of proportion. This is in line with her usual custom of advising contemplatives to avoid excess in penitential practices; she usually advises those in active life to engage in more penitential practices.

Penance to be sure must be used as a tool, in due times and places, as need may be. If the flesh, being too strong, kicks against the spirit, penance takes the rod of discipline, and fast, and the cilice of many buds, and mighty vigils; and places burdens enough on the flesh, that it may be more subdued. But if the body is weak, fallen into illness, the rule of discretion does not approve of such a method. Nay, not only should fasting be abandoned, but flesh be eaten; if once a day is not enough, then four times. If one cannot stand up, let him stay on his bed; if he cannot kneel, let him sit or lie down, as he needs. This discretion demands. Therefore it insists that penance be treated as a means and not as a chief desire.

Dost thou know why it must not be chief? That the soul may not serve God with a thing that can be taken from it and that is finite: but with holy desire, which is infinite, through its union with the infinite desire of God; and with the virtues which neither devil nor fellow-creature nor weakness can take from us, unless we choose. Herein must we make our foundation, and not in penance. Nay, in weakness the virtue of patience may be tested; in vexing conflicts with devils, fortitude and long perseverance; and in adversities suffered from our fellow-beings, humility, patience, and charity. So as to all other virtues—God lets them be tested by many contraries, but never taken from us, unless we choose. Herein must we make our foundation, and not in penance.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Greatness and Philosophy

Gregory Lewis has a very odd guest post up at "The Daily Nous". But, on the other side, it does a good job of pulling together a number of threads I've seen separately elsewhere, so it is handy for saying something all at once.

(1) The basic question asked is why the 'greatest philosophers' live so far in the past. But there's no actual standard by which greatness is being measured here. The measure seems to be mostly what contemporary philosophers would tend to apply that title to; that is, it is an indirect extrinsic measure by way of reputation. We aren't directly talking about greatness at all. This raises several problems.

(1a) If we're measuring reputation, why would one expect there to be very many contemporary philosophers with reputations on the level of Plato, who has been around almost nonstop for well more than two millenia? How would most philosophers even build up a reputation like that over a short time? Even Plato in his day did not (we might say) have the philosophical reputation of Plato; he was just one of many students of Socrates. Plato's reputation is partly due to the fact that he has kept being valuable in one way or another almost nonstop since his own day.

(1b) If you ask academic philosophers about reputations, what you will get will reflect philosophical pedagogy. All the people who get on the list will be philosophers who are useful for contemporary philosophical teaching. This will be due to a combination of factors in various proportions depending on the case -- teachability, the usefulness of a philosopher as a gateway to different philosophical field, the influence of the philosopher on those fields, the usefulness of the philosopher as a reference point for navigating contemporary philosophical research and discussion, are just three factors that obviously strongly favor Plato over almost anyone else, for instance. Frege pretty clearly gets on the informal list Lewis mentions primarily because analytic philosophers regularly use tools that can be traced to him. And so forth.

(1c) If we're just talking about a list of 'greatest philosophers', without any further specification, we're asking something very generic and general. It will favor brilliant generalists over brilliant specialists, influential people over people who have not been as influential, people we happen to know about over people we don't, people who have lots of extant works over people who don't. Obviously none of these are requirements, but if you ask, "Who are the greatest philosophers?", these biases are built into the question to begin with. Thus these lists give us people like Plato (who covers an immense array of fields) and Aristotle (who even in the ancient world was jokingly said to know everything), major generalists who have been almost continually influential on parts of the discussion and keep being explicitly discussed. You can be extremely influential (like Zhu Xi) and yet virtually unknown to the people making such lists; you can be extremely brilliant and yet too specialized to come to mind if the description is just 'greatest philosophers'; you can be extremely brilliant but out of fashion at the time that they make the list; and so forth. Lewis says that the list of greatest philosophers is partly explained by "polymath premium" and "forefather effect". Well, obviously these are found here and obviously they explain nothing; original generalists of great influence is literally just what we usually assume we are talking about when we talk about 'greatest philosophers' with no further specification. Others might get in if they are especially important to us, but that's about the only other thing we might take the question as asking.

(1d) By definition, great philosophy is something that endures. About whom do we have better information about the ability of their work to endure, Plato or someone in the philosophy department at the nearest college? Lewis at one point says that the list of greatest philosophers is partly explained by 'retroactive esteem'. This is not an explanation of the list of the greatest philosophers at all; the list of greatest philosophers is nothing other than a list of philosophers who are the objects of great retroactive esteem, for some reason or other. Even if we added someone currently living to the list, we could be dealing with nothing other than retroactive esteem for what they had accomplished.

(2) Lewis talks about low-hanging fruit; and this is, I think, a case of a metaphor running away with its argument. When we call something 'low-hanging fruit' we can mean that it is easy, or that it is unimportant, or that it is early (i.e., one of the next thing in some kind of order). A major problem is that in intellectual matters, these three easily come apart. Whether or not an intellectual question is difficult or easy to answer does not tell us anything at all about how important the answer is. The earliest questions, in the sense of being the first that you'd have to ask, are not always the easiest questions. And sometimes the most important things are also the obvious places to begin. And the danger here is assuming that we can simply conflate the three concepts. Lewis, for instance, explicitly conflates earlier with easier. This is an obvious error.

Plato and Aristotle are obviously going to take some of the earlier steps; that logically follows from the fact that they are earlier and took some steps. We learn nothing from this. The earlier steps are not necessarily easy; they could, for all the bare fact of earliness tells us, be the most difficult ones. The earlier steps are not necessarily of lesser importance; they could, for all the bare fact of earliness tells us, be the only important ones.

It's likewise important to keep in mind that 'low-hanging fruit' in intellectual matters is entirely relative, and not sharply defined. New discoveries mean new low-hanging fruit. New problems can mean new low-hanging fruit. And, what is more, in intellectual matters, fruit may be low-hanging from one direction and not from another. Relative idiots in mathematics can be taught to solve mathematical problems that four thousand years ago would have taken the greatest mathematical geniuses in the world to answer. How? As Descartes saw, through the refinement of method. But the fact that any logician today can handle syllogisms does not tell us much about their logical acumen in comparison with Aristotle, despite the fact that Aristotle probably did have a harder time with syllogisms. But that's because Aristotle had to figure out what syllogisms were, how they worked, and the methods for tracing out how they worked, almost from scratch; there could hardly be a logician alive today who actually did that rather than being taught Aristotle's answers (or refinements of Aristotle's answers). Inventing syllogistic is a sign of genius; learning it, not so much. Basic syllogistic is perhaps low-hanging fruit today, after Aristotle; before Aristotle it wasn't even obvious that it was on the tree.

(3) But there is a more important issue involved here. Lewis suggests that there is an incongruity between the fact that the 'greatest philosophers' tend so often to be long-ago and the fact that the population of the earth is so much greater. But there is nothing, literally nothing, in the history of philosophy to indicate that philosophical work correlates with population. Indeed, we know that it can be drastically affected by infrastructure. It is not really surprising that there are more significant philosophers in the burgeoning Spanish Empire in the sixteenth century than in the late eighteenth. Sixteenth-century Spain is highly educated, has a lot of resources, has a cultural emphasis on the general social importance of philosophy, has networks in place encouraging the interaction of philosophers in Spain and its colonies with philosophers outside it, is dealing with new problems in fields like law that desperately need solutions and that philosophers are actively encouraged to discuss by society at large. Late eighteenth-century Spain, despite some talented philosophers and universities still chugging along, does not actually have most of these advantages.

Social context also seems to have an effect. Students in Plato's Academy or in the Stoa did philosophy pretty much all the waking day in a population that already did a lot of philosophy and for completely independent reasons actively encouraged arguing about practically everything. How much time does the philosopher of our day spend grading the same things over and over, or doing paperwork, or watching TV, or the like? How much does our society actively encourage philosophical discussion? How easy is it for someone interested in philosophy of X to find other people interested in it and to spend days and months discussing it with them, at relative leisure?

In early modern Vienna, you could find some of the greatest composers in Europe just by going down to the beer hall. It's not an accident that it was Vienna; Vienna was music-mad. This doesn't mean that most of the music in Vienna was great music; most of the music in Vienna was probably pretty kitschy. It did mean that great musicians went to Vienna because the Viennese appreciated music. It did mean that talented musicians in Vienna could easily find other talented musicians to learn from. It did mean that a lot of new approaches to music were being tried out in Vienna. It did mean that it was possible in Vienna for a musician to spend lots of time on music and nothing but music. And we can see this in other ways. Likewise, it's not a surprise that so much of Western philosophy goes back to Athens, in particular. Athens had the encouraging culture, it had the supporting institutions, it had the pressing need for solutions to problems (particularly in politics), it had a general belief that philosophy was some kind of important or other, it had the resources directed in the right way. That we find so much philosophical work done in Athens and so relatively little done in Carthage has absolutely nothing to do with their respective populations.

One of the assumptions the argument has to make is that great philosophy is cheap and easy, so that it's always equally possible. But everything we know about the history of philosophy suggests that the conditions for having a lot of major enduring philosophical work done at a given time and place are fairly fragile and difficult to build and maintain. Yes, modern America is massively larger than Classical Athens; but there's no reason to think that it's anywhere remotely as efficient at encouraging a lot of philosophical work that is likely to be valuable for centuries.

(4) If one looks over it all, there is an obvious problem with the whole discussion of whether Plato is really great; not once does it look at or assess anything Plato actually did. Occasionally, moving out and about, you'll find an idiot who blusters about how Plato is an idiot; I have never met any such person whose reading of Plato was even competent. I once came across someone arguing that Plato was famous because he had been a big fish in the small pond of Classical Athens. The obvious nonsense of this is seen once you actually look at the facts of the history of philosophy; Plato has been a big fish in every body of water. These sorts of things are always speculations divorced from actual evidence.

It reminds me of the people who were saying a while back that we live in a Golden Age of philosophy. Historically, the kinds of periods we call intellectual 'golden ages' tend to be periods of flourishing and innovative educational systems in which intellectual work is highly prestigious and generously rewarded with material benefits, and in which the intellectuals work both cooperatively and competitively on problems of widespread social significance; but the kinds of people who say that we are in a Golden Age don't ever look at any of that. They rarely dirty their hands with any evidence at all, and when they do, it's virtually never based on the bits and pieces that we have historical reason to think are relevant to 'golden ages'.

But from the perspective of the history of philosophy, it's the actual evidence alone that matters. To historians of philosophy belongs the realm of the dead; sooner or later everyone comes to us. When Minos judges you, O denizen of the 'Golden Age', it will not be in the finery you deck yourself. What matters is the evidence, and your bluster makes not one whit of difference in the scale. And when you are remembered, O philosophical Ozymandias, it will not be for your greatness in your own eyes. All that will matter will be the evidence in the sand.

The Mystery, the Pang, the Passage, the Unknown

Saint Catherine of Siena
by Alice Meynell


(Written for Strephon, who said that a woman must lean, or she should not have his chivalry.)

The light young man who was to die,
Stopped in his frolic by the State,
Aghast, beheld the world go by;
But Catherine crossed his dungeon gate.

She found his lyric courage dumb,
His stripling beauties strewn in wrecks,
His modish bravery overcome;
Small profit had he of his sex.

On any old wife’s level he,
For once—for all. But he alone—
Man—must not fear the mystery,
The pang, the passage, the unknown:

Death. He did fear it, in his cell,
Darkling amid the Tuscan sun;
And, weeping, at her feet he fell,
The sacred, young, provincial nun.

She prayed, she preached him innocent;
She gave him to the Sacrificed;
On her courageous breast he leant,
The breast where beat the heart of Christ.

He left it for the block, with cries
Of victory on his severed breath.
That crimson head she clasped, her eyes
Blind with the splendour of his death.

And will the man of modern years
—Stern on the Vote—withhold from thee,
Thou prop, thou cross, erect, in tears,
Catherine, the service of his knee?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Concept of Perfect Love

Daniel Howard-Snyder and Adam Green have a new article up at the SEP on divine hiddenness arguments for atheism. As these are increasingly popular, it's nice to have a good summary of the current lay of the land.

I confess I've never been remotely impressed with these kinds of arguments, which always seem to me to be weak, and fairly speculative, arguments from evil; the premises always strike me as implausible, and the reasons why others take them to be plausible, when they bother to give them, often seem to me to be cant and sentimentalist tripe. But I'm certainly in the minority on this.

I don't want to get into all the problems I see with the arguments here, but I do want to press on something that, while not definitive, needs, I think, to be taken more seriously than it usually is. A good way to see it is by looking at the following premise in Schellenberg's most recent versions of the arguments, as represented by the above article:

Necessarily, if God perfectly loves such finite persons as there may be, then, for any capable finite person S and time t, God is at t open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with S at t.

Set aside all the complications involved in talking about God "at time t" and what it means for God to be "open" to something. And let's set aside the "necessarily", which raises complications with the principle of remotion. We'll strip it down for our purposes to the notion that if God perfectly loves all finite persons that exist, God is open to being an a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relation with each one that is capable of being so at any given time.

It's clear that this kind of idea doesn't follow from love-concepts in general; love from a distance is not an uncommon phenomenon, and loving someone in complete secret is surely not contradictory. Nor do either of these seem necessarily defective as love. So what must be doing the work is that this is a particular kind of love, perfect love; but, of course, the question is what this perfect love is; it's perfectly fine, of course, to say that you can draw conclusions from such a thing if we know how you got it and what it is, precisely, that you've got.

Under the circumstances, very obviously, we can't get our knowledge of perfect love from observing God acting with perfect love; that would rather defeat the purpose of arguing that God doesn't exist. So it's not based on any prior experience with actual divine perfect love. So there are really only two possibilities here: either it's supposed to be a conceptual necessity based on a concept knowable a priori, or it is an extrapolation to the limit of eminent human love. The first would be very odd (what is going on that makes reason to have a pure a priori concept of perfect love suitable to being applied to God, who doesn't exist?). Perhaps there's some way to relieve the oddity; I'm not out for refutation here, so let's set this aside and assume, for a moment -- which seems actually to be the case if we look at how people actually argue for the above premise, and similar premises -- that we are extrapolating to the limit what we know about excellent kinds of human love (which, if God does not exist, are presumably the most excellent loves we usually know).

We do still run into the problem that was already mentioned, that there are love-concepts where this doesn't seem to be the case. Is it really impossible for us to take 'love in secret' and extrapolate it to the limit and get 'perfect love in secret'? Usually when we would reject an idea like 'God is perfectly loves with perfect shyness', it's because we would point to some reason for thinking that God doesn't act like that, but you can't appeal to that in the middle of an argument for God's nonexistence. And, of course, one need not be so extreme at all; since we can have love-concepts that do not work the way the love-concept in the above premise works, perhaps God's is a different version of these -- for all we know at this point.

Here's a very eminent kind of love with which we are actually acquainted: the kind of love for others in which one is even willing to die for their good. It's a kind of love that we often go to when we are talking about the heights of human love. This is much, much stronger than being "open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship", which seems to be even at best estimate a very basic necessary condition rather than a sufficient condition for perfect love. (One can imagine someone going around saying, "Greater love has no one than this, to be open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship." That conception would perhaps be a bit unambitious. So it can hardly be the sum and parcel of 'perfect love'; the most that can be argued is that it is one of the things one needs.)

It seems that if the laying-down-one's-life-for-someone's-good kind of love is itself consistent (as we would have to assume if we are extrapolating to the limit), the kinds of things one did through it would have to be consistent with the possibility of having a friendship of virtue with them. That's promising, perhaps: 'perfect love has to be consistent with the possibility of friendship of virtue with the one loved' does look a tiny bit like 'perfect love has to be open to a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with the one loved'. For one thing, friendships are (if the terms mean anything at all) 'positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationships' with the one loved; and presumably the friendship arising out of virtue is a better candidate for being perfect-love-like than friendship arising out of other things.

But what it certainly does not require is that one be aiming at such a relationship at every moment, nor that one be actively cultivating it at every moment. If we love someone with this kind of love, it is not even essential to the love that the one who is loved know who you are at the moment. It does not require that, during the whole time one is loving, one "value, seek, desire, promote, or preserve personal relationship", to use a phrase from the article. It is the kind of love in which one would sometimes be willing, right now, to die in anonymity or ignonimy rather than be in a personal relationship -- if, for instance, it were for the good of the one loved. And, of course, one need not go so extreme -- one could have the lay-down-one's-life kind of love without actually laying down one's life; but it seems consistent with such a love, perhaps, to forgo relationship now in favor of better, or more honest, or more fruitful relationship later. Not every time is appropriate for trying to be bestest of best friends -- not that it even seems essential to this kind of love necessarily to try to do so at all. It is consistent with it, should the opportunity arise and be pursued -- but what about a willingness to lay down one's life for the good of others requires that the opportunity arise and be pursued?

We are talking here about human love, of course. Perhaps one might say that we cannot imagine the lay-down-one's-life kind of love taken to the limit; that it's hard to grasp what what it could mean for God to love with a lay-down-one's-life kind of love. That's certainly true. Perhaps one might say that, whatever love God may have, it must be better than can be captured even by taking human lay-down-one's-life love to the limit. And that is certainly true as well. But I will insist, nonetheless, that the lay-down-one's-life love is something like what you would have to look at if you were looking at loves with which we are acquainted that seem to be most like a perfect love. It's not a fluffy greeting-card picture of love (I confess that when someone says things like "a conscious and reciprocal relationship that is positively meaningful, allowing for a deep sharing", as Schellenberg does, the first image that flashes in my mind is a Care Bear). This is a more solemn and dignified kind of love than that. And I will insist that it doesn't work like one would expect from the above premise, which raises some questions for the extrapolation method of trying to figure out what 'perfect love' is here.

As I said above, none of this is geared toward refutation; it is a point that merely needs to be taken more seriously than it usually is. But an abiding quirk of my mind when dealing with arguments is that I don't see arguments on their own; I see families of arguments, series of analogue-arguments. (This sometimes makes it very difficult to explain to people why I am suspicious of their arguments. It's also why I tend to like Neoplatonists and scholastics, because, due to the ways they approach topics, they tend to be very consistent across families of arguments, and to have principled reasons for apparent violations of analogies between arguments, rather than just handling arguments on a case-by-case basis.) And there is a reason here for just looking at this particular thread on its own. Where else do we find arguments about God turning on a concept of perfect love, in which the issues raised by the concept are highly analogous to the ones raised here? In a great many arguments for universalism (in the sense of universal salvation).

In fact, any argument from divine hiddenness can be turned into an argument for universalism by dropping the time requirement and considering possibility in a slightly broader way. The divine hiddenness argument for God not existing always says something broadly like 'God, perfectly loving all, would be open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with everyone at any given time; but there are people not in such relationships with God at some time, although it is possible for them to be; if it is possible to have such a relationship with them, God would indeed have such a relationship with them at that time; therefore, God does not exist.' (There are always, of course, refinements and slight variations and clarifications.) You can turn that into a universalist argument easy as pie: 'God, perfectly loving all, would be open to being in a positively meaningful and reciprocal conscious relationship with everyone at some time; but there are people have not had such relationships, although it is possible for them to have them; if it is possible to have such a relationship with them, at some time God would indeed have such a relationship with them; therefore God will have such a relationship to them at some time.' (With whatever refinements and variations and clarifications.)

Likewise, it is a besetting problem that universalists often do not manage to solve that many universalist arguments depending on 'perfect love' or the like should also lead us to think that perhaps there should be no evil now, for exactly the same reasons that divine hiddenness arguments deal with every time, and you can turn such arguments into divine hiddenness arguments against God's existence by changing the insistence from 'eventually' to 'now', mutatis mutandis.

The parallels, which are more clear when focusing specifically on the concept of 'perfect love' or similar concepts, deserve, I think, to be more closely studied.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Swift Joy and Tardy Sorrow

Envoy
by Francis Thompson


Go, songs, for ended is our brief, sweet play;
Go, children of swift joy and tardy sorrow:
And some are sung, and that was yesterday,
And some unsung, and that may be to-morrow.

Go forth; and if it be o’er stony way,
Old joy can lend what newer grief must borrow:
And it was sweet, and that was yesterday,
And sweet is sweet, though purchasèd with sorrow.

Go, songs, and come not back from your far way:
And if men ask you why ye smile and sorrow,
Tell them ye grieve, for your hearts know To-day,
Tell them ye smile, for your eyes know To-morrow.

A Buddhist Parable

Once there was a student studying under a great teacher; but the teacher always insisted that the student must practice his breathing in order to meditate properly.

"Who cannot learn the little things cannot learn the great things," he said.

Every day, from the first moment of teaching to the last, the teacher made the student practice his breathing. This went on for many months. Finally the student went to the teacher to complain.

"Teacher," he said, "I am tired with this breathing in and out. It is so boring. I think it is time for me to learn something that is actually interesting for a change."

The teacher reflected a moment, then nodded. "Sometimes, perhaps, it is necessary to learn something interesting. Come with me to the river."

They went out the river. The teacher than grabbed the student by his neck and held his head under water while the student struggled. Finally, when it seemed as if the student might drown, he let him back up, gasping and sputtering and choking for air.

"There! Isn't breathing in and out interesting for a change?" asked the teacher. "Now, practice your breathing."

Monday, April 25, 2016

Carmina qui Quondam

Something rather neat -- there was a recent rediscovery of an 11th-century musical setting of the first metrum of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. You can listen to the first two lines sung in its first performance in a thousand years:



More information can be found here.


Worse It Cannot Do

The Church does not grow old, the faith does not grow old, the Holy Ghost does not grow old ; say not, The days that have been are better than those which are. We can go into this city and find as strong faith, as tender piety, as thorough self-annihilation, as the world in any age ever witnessed. God is as near us as ever ; we have all the aids we ever had, and we may emulate the virtues of any past age. God has not changed; his religion has not changed ; man's nature has not changed. What was possible aforetime is possible now. Let us not, then, suppose we have come too late into the world to aspire to holy living. Let us turn our eyes, not out upon the barren wilderness without, but in upon the vast treasures we have been accumulating for ages, and dare use them.

Who cares for the heretics and infidels around us, — except for their conversion? They cannot harm us against our will. Were not the early Christians in a hostile world? Were they not surrounded by Jewish and Pagan relatives and friends ? Had they not apparently even greater obstacles than we to overcome? Why, then, shall we not speak to this age as they spoke to theirs ? Suppose we are sneered at, ridiculed, abused, insulted, trampled on. Suppose the world becomes mad against us, mobs us, shoots us down, sends us to dungeons, the scaffold, or the stake; worse it cannot do. Suppose all this. What then? We have only to rejoice and be exceedingly glad. Woe unto us only when all men speak well of us. Woe unto us only when we prefer the praise of men to the praise of God.

Orestes Brownson, "St. Stanslaus Kotska", Brownson's Quarterly Review, October, 1847.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Saint Edge-Bright

Today is the memorial of an interesting Anglo-Saxon saint, Saint Ecgberht of Northumbria. Ecgberht, or Egbert, was born in the seventh century of a noble family. He probably knew Saint Ceadda (or Chad), and when Chad went to Ireland, he seems to have taken Egbert with him so that the latter could further his studies. While there he caught the plague, and he swore a vow to God: if God would spare him, he would become a perpetual pilgrim. He survived and the young man (he was about twenty-five years old) kept his word, as an Anglo-Saxon noble would: he never returned home, spent his life undergoing penitential practices, and even when he stayed in one place for a while, he lived there as if he were only passing through. He lived a very long time, and kept his promise throughout those long years.

He was one of the people in attendance at the Synod of Birr, which probably means he became a bishop at one point. The Synod of Birr was a meeting of 697 of a number of bishops, abbots, and nobleman from Ireland, Scotland, and Pictland which promulgated the Cáin Adomnáin (named after Admonán, the ninth abbot of Iona), or Lex Innocentium, which guaranteed that a distinction should be made between warriors and non-warriors in battle, and established a generally agreed-upon law among the nations involved for how to handle soldiers killing or raping women, or vandalizing church property. The content was not in every respect new; some of it was traditional Gaelic custom, and some of it was what Christian preachers had been exhorting for years. And it does not seem to have actually been enforced at any point -- but it did get all the nations in the area to agree explicitly on at least the principles, and it made respect for such principles at least a matter of honor for them. Honor is a weak enforcer of explicit norms -- but it is a steady pressure in their favor.

Egbert became heavily involved in the Easter controversy, and was a major figure in convincing various powers in the area to accept the Roman dating of Easter. Because of this the Venerable Bede speaks of him very highly. St. Beda's comments on death:

The monks of Hii, at the teaching of Egbert, adopted the catholic manner of conversation, under Abbot Dunchad, about eighty years after they had sent Bishop Aidan to preach to the English nation. The man of God, Egbert, remained thirteen years in the aforesaid island, which he had thus consecrated to Christ, as it were, by a new ray of the grace of fellowship and peace in the Church; and in the year of our Lord 729, in which Easter was celebrated on the 24th of April, when he had celebrated the solemnity of the Mass, in memory of the Resurrection of our Lord, that same day he departed to the Lord and thus finished, or rather never ceases endlessly to celebrate, with our Lord, and the Apostles, and the other citizens of heaven, the joy of that greatest festival, which he had begun with the brethren, whom he had converted to the grace of unity. And it was a wonderful dispensation of the Divine Providence, that the venerable man passed from this world to the Father, not only at Easter, but also when Easter was celebrated on that day, on which it had never been wont to be celebrated in those parts. The brethren rejoiced in the sure and catholic knowledge of the time of Easter, and were glad in that their father, by whom they had been brought into the right way, passing hence to the Lord should plead for them. He also gave thanks that he had so long continued in the flesh, till he saw his hearers accept and keep with him as Easter that day which they had ever before avoided. Thus the most reverend father being assured of their amendment, rejoiced to see the day of the Lord, and he saw it and was glad.

Maronite Year XLIII

Fifth Sunday of the Resurrection
Ephesians 2:1-10; John 21:15-19

O Incense of forgiveness, we adore You;
in Your image and likeness we are made.
Though You were true God, You became man for us;
the Light that never ceases tasted of death.
You were entombed like every mortal,
but Your voice, full of life, woke the sleeping just.

O Incense of forgiveness, with what great love
You have loved us, such a living love.
We were dead, but God, in giving life to You,
gave us life and raised us up to love.
Abundant is the richness of Your great grace!
You reformed us in Christ from Your love.

O Incense of forgiveness, our prayers rise
only because You, Lord, are risen.
The God of peace raised You to be our Shepherd;
through Your blood He completes all our works.
Your robes are stained with victory over death;
through Your rising we are clothed anew.

O Incense of forgiveness, by Your great grace
we are brought to life and born anew.
You, O Jesus, undid the ancient sorrow,
gathering the nations to Your name,
investing them with shining robes of glory,
giving them shining crowns of splendor.