Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Three Institutions

We observe that all nations, barbarous as well as civilized, though separately founded because remote from each other in time and space, keep these three human customs: all have some religion, all contract solemn marriages, all bury their dead. And in no nation, however savage and crude, are any human actions performed with more elaborate ceremonies and more sacred solemnity than the rites of religion, marriage, and burial. For, by the axiom that "uniform ideas, born among peoples unknown to each other, must have a common ground of truth" [144], it must have been dictated to all nations that from these three institutions humanity began among them all, and therefore they must be devoutly guarded by them all, so that the world should not again become a bestial wilderness.

[Giambattista Vico, The New Science of Giambattista Vico, Bergin & Fisch, trs., Cornell (Ithaca, NY: 1976) p. 97, section 333.]

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Teacher

Today is the feast of St. Macrina the Younger, Neoplatonist philosopher, sister of St. Basil the Great, St. Naucratius, St. Peter of Sebaste, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, daughter of St. Basil the Elder and the St. Emmilia, granddaughter of St. Macrina the Elder. By one of those occasional happy happenstances, I am teaching Macrina today as part of a short section on Neoplatonism. From St. Gregory of Nyssa's On the Soul and the Resurrection, an account of Gregory's conversation with Macrina on her deathbed, here is an excerpt giving a Neoplatonist diagnosis of Epicurus's philosophy:

The framework of things was to his mind a fortuitous and mechanical affair, without a Providence penetrating its operations; and, as a piece with this, he thought that human life was like a bubble, existing only as long as the breath within was held in by the enveloping substance , inasmuch as our body was a mere membrane, as it were, encompassing a breath; and that on the collapse of the inflation the imprisoned essence was extinguished. To him the visible was the limit of existence; he made our senses the only means of our apprehension of things; he completely closed the eyes of his soul, and was incapable of seeing anything in the intelligible and immaterial world, just as a man, who is imprisoned in a cabin whose walls and roof obstruct the view outside, remains without a glimpse of all the wonders of the sky. Verily, everything in the universe that is seen to be an object of sense is as an earthen wall, forming in itself a barrier between the narrower souls and that intelligible world which is ready for their contemplation; and it is the earth and water and fire alone that such behold; whence comes each of these elements, in what and by what they are encompassed, such souls because of their narrowness cannot detect. While the sight of a garment suggests to any one the weaver of it, and the thought of the shipwright comes at the sight of the ship, and the hand of the builder is brought to the mind of him who sees the building, these little souls gaze upon the world, but their eyes are blind to Him whom all this that we see around us makes manifest; and so they propound their clever and pungent doctrines about the soul's evanishment;— body from elements, and elements from body, and, besides, the impossibility of the soul's self-existence (if it is not to be one of these elements, or lodged in one)....

Delightful Bathed with Slow-Ascending Dews

by William Lisle Bowles

As one who, long by wasting sickness worn,
Weary has watched the lingering night, and heard
Unmoved the carol of the matin bird
Salute his lonely porch; now first at morn
Goes forth, leaving his melancholy bed;
He the green slope and level meadow views,
Delightful bathed with slow-ascending dews;
Or marks the clouds, that o'er the mountain's head
In varying forms fantastic wander white;
Or turns his ear to every random song,
Heard the green river's winding marge along,
The whilst each sense is steeped in still delight.
So o'er my breast young Summer's breath I feel,
Sweet Hope! thy fragrance pure and healing incense steal!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817. From one of the three surviving prayers composed by Jane Austen for Austen family devotions:

Father of Heaven! whose goodness has brought us in safety to the close of this day, dispose our hearts in fervent prayer. Another day is now gone, and added to those, for which we were before accountable. Teach us almighty father, to consider this solemn truth, as we should do, that we may feel the importance of every day, and every hour as it passes, and earnestly strive to make a better use of what thy goodness may yet bestow on us, than we have done of the time past.

Give us grace to endeavour after a truly Christian Spirit to seek to attain that temper of Forbearance and Patience, of which our Blessed Saviour has set us the highest Example and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this World can give. Incline us Oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.

Bruce Stovel discusses the background of these prayers here.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Vowel Harmony

One of the things that's difficult about Finnish is that it is a language with vowel harmony -- your vowels have to match up (Finnish has eight vowels in two overlapping groups). There are rules governing how this works, and they aren't at all complicated or difficult (if you have ä or ö, you have to continue with ä or ö, for instance). But the problem is that it's not the sort of thing you actually should be doing by rule at all, even by simple and easy rule. The rule identifies what is correct, but if you are speaking, you shouldn't be stopping to check the rule; you should just automatically be harmonizing your vowels as you go. And that's a bit tricky.

However, for the second half of the summer I am taking a Turkish course, and we had our first class tonight. (My last Urdu class is later this week.) And Turkish is also a language with vowel harmony, which I hadn't known. So, for instance, Bizim means 'our', and there are suffixes you do to match that grammatically just as you would in a Romance language. But if your suffix has vowels, they need (usually) to match the last vowel of the word to which you are adding it. Let's take s℩n℩f, which means 'class'. (℩ is to first approximation like the English 'ih'; 'i' in Turkish is always more like the English 'ee'.) If I want to say 'my class' and 'our class', I get:

benim s℩n℩f℩m : my class
bizim s℩n℩f℩m℩z : our class

But if we pick a different word with different vowels, like gül ('rose', the vowels have to change to correspond (ü is a strong 'oo' sound, like the 'u' in 'duke'):

benim gülüm : my rose
bizim gülümüz : our rose

And as with Finnish it works mostly according to rules and the rules themselves are relatively simple -- for instance, Turkish has eight vowels that fall into two groups, hard and soft, and hard has to go with hard and soft has to go with soft.

But I had an epiphany while we were going over this in class. Essentially, the appropriate suffix to add when saying 'our' is always a -*m*z suffix; it reflects the pronoun you use, or would use if you drop the pronoun -- -*m*z is a sort of reflection onto the noun of the pronoun bizim. But the vowels are carrying through the prior sound in the words to which the suffix belongs.

To call it 'vowel harmony', then, is potentially misleading. That makes it sound like I have a vowel and then I have to select another vowel that fits with it. But really that's not what's going on; what's going on is that the vowel sound is continuing across the consonant, sometimes directly and sometimes with modification, but it is a vowel continuation -- in essence, how you are framing the vowel in your mouth just continues on through the suffix. If I say adlar℩ (their name), the second 'a' shape continues through the generic -a/e and -℩/-i sounds of the suffix, and that gives us the ℩. With a word like defterleri (their notebook), the second 'e' shape continues on through the same generic sounds to give us e and i. It's exactly the same suffix; you just don't reshape your mouth for it, so that modifies the sound.

This is true in Finnish as well. If you look at a Finnish grammar, it always looks like Finnish has a jillion times a jillion suffixes; in reality it only has a jillion suffixes, because the variants for vowel harmony are actually just the same suffix while carrying over the framing of the vowel from previously in the word. In English, and generally in Romance languages, we start over with each syllable; but in vowel harmony languages, the vowel-sounds in a sense flow through the word rather than existing entirely as discrete units.

And this is exactly why there are relatively nice rules for them that are pretty much completely useless for conversation and of only limited value for writing. If you do it right, you'll fit the rule, but if you are using the rule, you will have difficulty doing it right. Because, although in some sense your vowels have to match, you don't get that effect easily and consistently by matching your vowels; you get the effect by learning how not to unmatch them, by just letting them continue on through into the next syllable or syllables.


Incidentally, this seems to me to be something of an analogy for the difference between a deontological and a virtue-ethical approach to rules in ethics; in deontology, you apply rules, while in virtue ethics, you try to learn how to harmonize, to carry the relevant moral quality through, and, lo, there's a rule that shows that you did it right even though you weren't applying the rule. That's why phronesis, prudence, is so important in Aristotelian ethics: it is the virtue of harmonizing your actions to the moral qualities of the circumstances.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fortnightly Book, July 16

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

For a number of scheduling reasons I wanted either an easier read or a re-read for the fortnightly book, so it will be J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Published in September of 1937, it was immediately popular, and has never been out of print, although it had a revised second edition (changing the famous riddle scene to be more in conformity with The Lord of the Rings) in 1951.

I just have an ordinary paperback version of it, but it's worth noting that Tolkien put an immense amount of effort into the design of the original -- he provided illustrations, did the dust jacket, and ultimately was responsible for most of the binding design.

This seems like an excellent time to remind us all of this astounding adaptation, thrown together in 1966 so that William Snyder would not lose the movie rights he had bought:

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Series


Opening Passage: From Foundation (p. 4):

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times in the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.

There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.

Summary: Using the mathematics of psychohistory to predict the future, Hari Seldon foresaw the imminent collapse of the Galactic Empire into thirty thousand years of war and barbarism. To reduce that Interregnum to a thousand years, he established two Foundations at opposite ends of the Galaxy, of which the First, on the most distant habitable planet, Terminus, a concentrated bit of civilization with almost no resources that alone preserved a momentum of scientific progress, and around which, in accordance with the secret Seldon Plan, the Second Galactic Empire would form, being forced along that path by a series of Seldon Crises in which a significant set of dangers to the Foundation narrow down all options to one.

Foundation gives the early years of the First Foundation, being in a sense a look at the three formative heroes of the First Foundation: Hari Seldon, seen in his declining years as he manipulates the delicate Imperial situation in order to found a society that will preserve civilization; Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus, who realizes earlier than anyone else what Seldon was really doing and guides the fledgling Foundation through its first two Seldon Crises, using first the balance of power and then religious dominance to secure Terminus a position of importance among the local breakaway kingdoms, and whose ideas after his death begin to make possible the economic spread of Foundation influence; and Hobert Mallow, whose consolidation of this economic sphere of influence makes him the first Merchant Prince and begins to set the Foundation in earnest on a path of ever-expanding influence. Hardin's first Seldon Crisis occurs fifty years after the founding of the Foundation, the Hardin's second occurs thirty years later, and Mallow's about seventy-five years later.

Foundation and Empire, which story-wise is the strongest of the books, begins forty years later as the expanding Foundation comes into contact with the declining Empire which, however, is still the most powerful military force in the Galaxy. Under the brilliant general Bel Riose, the Empire begins re-conquering these outlying territories, including the Foundation, which has nothing that can stand against even the remnant of the military might of an Empire that once had total control over the Galaxy and that still controls the resources of a significant portion of it. However, brilliant Riose may be, however, he operates in social and economic that guarantee his defeat; it is the Empire that is destroying the Empire. Riose falls from glory and the Foundation begins its expansion again.

The defeat of Bel Riose is the high point of the Seldon Plan: it finally becomes wholly clear that the Foundation will certainly succeed not because of heroes like Hardin and Mallow but because it is socially and economically impossible for them not to do so.

It is said at this point that John Campbell suggested to Asimov that for the sake of interest something needed to put the Seldon Plan in danger. Thus the second half of Foundation and Empire sees the Foundation, about a hundred years later, gripped by corruption and on the verge of a civil war with the Independent Traders. However, the Traders throw in with the Foundation in the face of the uncannily swift rise of a new warlord, known only as The Mule. In one of the strongest scenes in the entire series, the government of the Foundation and some representatives of the Traders meet in the Time Vault on Terminus to hear the pre-recorded commentary of Seldon on the Seldon Crisis that the Mule seems to be creating -- and listen in shock as Seldon talks about the civil war between the Foundation and the Independent Traders. Hari Seldon did not foresee The Mule. The the power goes off as The Mule's fleet arrives.

Desperate, a small group of Foundationers journey to Trantor (which, having been sacked, is no longer the capital of the tiny remnant of the Empire) in the hopes of finding out whether the other Foundation is. Three crucial things are learned: that The Mule could not be foreseen by Seldon because he was a mutant capable of directly manipulating emotions; that the Second Foundation was a society of mental scientists, as the First Foundation was of physical scientists, whose entire reason for existing was to keep the Seldon Plan on track; and what Seldon meant when he said that the Second Foundation was located at Star's End. The latter information, however, they only narrowly prevent from falling into the hands of The Mule himself.

Five years later, in Second Foundation, The Mule is seeking the Second Foundation as the only thing in the Galaxy that could stop him, and the Second Foundation by a risky plan manages barely to win out. But win out they do, and turn to the difficult work of returning the Galaxy to the Seldon Plan. But the problem is that in order to stop The Mule, they had made it to obvious both that they really existed and that they had the power to stop a practically invincible man who could manipulate minds. The knowledge causes the reactions of the Foundation itself to deviate from what they need to be, and in particular creates an anti-Second-Foundation faction on the Foundation, resentful of what has become obvious, that they are going to do the difficult and dirty work of building the Second Empire, and that they are then going to be ruled by people like The Mule. Thus the Second Foundation, under its greatest leader must find a way to make the Foundation think that the Second Foundation has been destroyed. This he does, and 377 years after its founding, the Foundation is again on its way to building the Second Empire.

And so Asimov left it for about thirty years; the Foundation Trilogy became one of the staples of science fiction and fans kept pressuring for more. But what else is there to do? Asimov continued the series with Foundation's Edge, which opens 498 years after the founding of the Foundation, and things are going too well -- it is becoming clear to both the Second Foundation (which has the Plan) and to the Foundation (based on comments in the Time Vault after another Seldon Crisis) that things are going too well -- given the disruption created by The Mule, the Seldon Plan should not be as obviously on track as it is. Thus Golan Trevize of the Foundation is sent on a mission, under the cover of trying to find the planet on which human beings evolved, to try to draw out the Second Foundation and discover where they are; Stor Gendibal of the Second Foundation sets out to discover who beside the Second Foundation is managing the Galaxy. They discover Gaia, a unified conscious ecology, which is hoping to expand to a Galaxy-wide consciousness, and Trevize is put in the position of choosing which of the three visions -- a physical Empire under the Foundation, a psychohistorical Empire under the Second Foundation, or a galactic consciousness -- should be chosen. He makes his choice and then spends the next book, Foundation and Earth, trying to figure out why.

And at the halfway-point to the Second Empire, had no idea where to go next. So he went back instead and wrote Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, about how Hari Seldon invented psychohistory.

Thus the series. It's worth keeping the basic structure of the whole in mind, because this is one of the strengths of the series -- the endless play of ideas across the sweep of history. And the idea of psychohistory is an engaging one. But it's not surprising that Asimov ran out of things to do with it. By the 500-year mark of the thousand-year Interregnum, the Seldon Plan looks hopelessly flawed. Two assumptions of psychohistory are known from the beginning:

(1) It requires a sufficiently large population, being statistical.
(2) It requires that human reactions be relatively constant.

The Mule wrecks (2) completely by his ability to manipulate emotions, and it takes the next hundred twenty years and outside intervention to undo what a single man like The Mule did in five. What is more, it becomes clear that a third assumption has been made:

(3) Scientific advance will not radically change the structure and character of human society.

It is clear that this assumption is on shaky ground, as Foundation advances have gone beyond what anyone could possibly have imagined in Seldon's day. You can't predict the exact course of scientific progress in advance. The gamble was that, however much it would advance, it would advance along the same lines and in the same kinds of ways as before; but Foundation's Edge makes clear that this cannot be guaranteed. And by the end of Foundation and Earth, it is clear that there is a fourth assumption:

(4) Human beings are the only intelligence capable of affecting the course of human history.

And this is shown not only to be false but remarkably false, since there are at least three intelligences in the Galaxy that are not strictly human: Gaia, the hyper-individualistic and self-modifying Solarians, and the robots. And all of these are just nonhuman intelligences who arose out of human history -- the robots were made by ancient human beings, Gaia was made by the robots, and the Solarians are human beings who have genetically modified themselves so that they are hermaphroditic and telekinetic. All three are small factors -- but they are still distorting things, and if there are any alien intelligences, psychohistory can say nothing about them. Technically the Plan will be fulfilled because Gaia sees the Second Empire as a stepping-stone to Galaxia, but the more time has passed, the more things have arisen that the psychohistory cannot handle.

It is interesting to speculate, though, where Asimov could have gone, and, indeed, that is part of what makes the entire series interesting. The basic conceit of the series means that it begins by, very roughly, taking the Fall of the Roman Empire and stapling it to a Renaissance-era expansion from the periphery -- what if Britain, say, were going through the early Renaissance at the time the Western Roman Empire was falling apart? There is never at any point in the series an exact correspondence of events, only correspondences that build on loose allusions that are modified quite extensively, but Foundation expansion broadly parallels early colonialization, if we think of it as the Foundation colonizing not a New World but the old Empire. The Mule messes up the story by introducing something new, although, if it weren't for the fact that the Foundation is on a timetable, probably not much more than Napoleon messed up Europe. By Foundation's Edge it is clear that the Foundation is in the middle of undergoing a kind of technological revolution analogous to the changes in communication, transportation, and the like in the nineteenth century, and its colonializing analogously takes on a highly centralized empire-building character like that of the nineteenth century colonial powers. Not all of these may have been intentional, but we can follow it through, again taking our history rather loosely. The nineteenth century leads to ever-expanding war. The Foundation has no serious external military rivals, so any such war would have to be at least partly civil war. But this would work quite well. Foundation history began to go wrong when The Mule prevented a nascent civil war; what is more, despite the fact that galactic events get back on track, they do so, and are kept on track, by artificial means and not by erasing history. And thus the Foundation, contrary to the original Plan, has never faced a civil war that threatened to destroy it. Once its rise began, it never had to make concessions to survive, except to an invincible superhuman. This is a difference of substance that no external tweaking on its own could fix. And I think there's another assumption of the Plan lurking in the wings that was never quite explored: the fact that the Second Foundation, as the guardian of the Plan, is not itself a threat to the Plan.

But the books as they exist are something of a closed circle. One of the things that leaped out at me on reading all seven together is that the narrative first and last, Prelude to Foundation and Foundation and Earth are quite parallel to each other. Prelude sees Hari Seldon going on a quest through the sectors of Trantor, which mirrors the Galaxy, in hopes of finding the way to build psychohistory, during which he discovers the Mycogenians, descendants of ancient Spacers from Aurora, and learns of Earth, the original homeworld of humanity, and finds that the Galaxy is in the hands of Daneel Olivaw, the humanoid robot who can manipulate minds. In Foundation and Earth, Golan Trevize goes on a quest through the Galaxy to find Earth, the original homeworld of humanity, in the hope that this will help him to discover the flaw in psychohistory, a quest that takes him to the ancient Spacer worlds, including Aurora, and to Earth, where he discovers that the fate of the Galaxy is in the hands of Daneel Olivaw, the humanoid robot who can manipulate minds. The parallelism is greatly to the disfavor of Foundation and Earth, which has less intrinsic interest, less interesting characters, and less of a story. (Its primary strength is playing around with new ideas, and its exploration of the ways in which the universe can be a very hostile place.) But given that it exists, perhaps we should just take it as calling it a day: psychohistory was an interesting idea with great promise, but like so many such ideas, it became obsolete before half of that promise was fulfilled.

Favorite Passage: He's a relatively minor character, but I think Mayor Indbur is my favorite character in the whole series. From Foundation and Empire:
So Mayor Indbur was the third of the name and the second to succeed by right of birth, and he was the least of the three, for he was neither brutal nor capable--but merely an excellent bookkeeper born wrong.

Indbur the Third was a peculiar combination of ersatz characteristics to all but himself.

To him, a stilted geometric love of arrangement was "system," an indefatigable and feverish interest in the pettiest facets of day-to-day bureaucracy was "industry," indecision when right was "caution," and blind stubbornness when wrong was, "determination."

And withal he wasted no money, killed no man needlessly, and meant extremely well. (p. 120)

Recommendation: The Trilogy are the best, with Foundation introducing the most interesting ideas and Foundation and Empire giving the strongest story; Second Foundation, I think, while quite good, is in some ways an aftermath-of-F&E novel. Of the other four, which are widely recognized as weaker, I personally like Prelude to Foundation best, although Foundation and Earth has the most interesting ideas. I really can't stand most of the characters (especially Golan Trevize) in the two Sequels, despite their many interesting elements, and Forward the Foundation seems to me never to quite find a way to cohere as a story in itself. But the whole series is worth reading, if only to get a sense of the scope and sweep, which is part of the interest.


Isaac Asimov, Foundation, Bantam (New York: 1991).

Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire, Bantam (New York: 1991).

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The First Two Wings of the Seraph

As today is St. Bonaventure's day, I give here a re-post from 2013.

Today is the Feast of St. Bonaventure, Doctor of the Church. He is usually known as the Seraphic Doctor, but his older designation was Doctor Devotus, the Devout Doctor. The name 'Bonaventure' may itself be a nickname; it means 'Good Fortune' and is said to have been given to him by St. Francis of Assisi, albeit by a late legend. His given name was Giovanni di Fidanza. His two most important works are the Breviloquium, which is a brilliant summary of the Catholic faith, and the Itinerarium, the Journey of the Mind to God, which is a brief, very dense work full of good things.

The Itinerarium is a meditation on the Crucified Seraph seen by St. Francis of Assisi at La Verna when he received the stigmata. Bonaventure had been the Minister General of the Franciscan order for two years by this point, and it was the thirty-third anniversary of the vision. Bonaventure pictures the six-winged seraph as representing the ascent of the mind to God, each wing representing another step. The key theme of the work is that of speculatio, which in this context means 'contemplation', but is closely connected to the word speculum, which is the word for 'mirror'. Each step in the ascent is a way we find things mirroring God. Each pair of wings is divided into a way in which we see God through the mirror of things and a higher way in which we see God in the mirror of things. To see God as through a mirror is to see him as that from which things come; to see God as in a mirror is to see him as actively working in the things that come from him. With the first and lowest pair of wings the mirror is the material world; with the next pair of wings, the mirror is our own souls; and with the third and highest pair of wings, the mirror is the divine name itself, first the name Being, then the name Good. Thence, of course, we pass over into God himself through the union of love.

Throughout this ascent, Bonaventure's governing principle is omnis effectus est signum causae, et exemplatum exemplaris, et via finis, ad quem ducit: "every effect is sign of its cause, and exemplate of its exemplar, and path to the end to which it leads" (2.12). Thus in the material world around us, recognizing it to be an effect requiring a cause or originating principle, we find the vestiges (vestigia: the word literally means 'footprints', but is usually translated as 'traces') of divine power (for things come from him as an effect), divine wisdom (for things imitate his understanding of them), and divine goodness (for things tend toward him as their universal good). This is reflected in a very great many ways:

in themselves
weight or tendency, number or distinction, measure or limitation

as found in faith or belief
origin, course, terminus

as known in investigative reason
existing, living, knowing

One of the things that makes Bonaventure sometimes difficult to read, and certainly makes his theology difficult to convey, is his facility at thinking multidimensionally about whatever topic he is considering. Each triad noted above is a pattern reflecting the pattern of power, wisdom, goodness, and equally of causal sign, exemplification, way. But the three levels themselves also exhibit this pattern, so that the first triad, as a triad, is a sign of divine power; the second triad, as a triad, is an exemplification of divine wisdom; and the third triad, as a triad, exhibits a path of ascent to divine goodness. Further, the whole series reiterates the three pairs of wings of the seraph and thus the three stages of ascent: the first triad suggests the material world in itself; the second triad, while remaining at the level of the material world, introduces a suggestion of the human mind; and the third triad, while again remaining at the level of the material world, introduces a suggestion of something higher than our own minds because on the basis of this triad the mind can build three kinds of inferences to things more noble than itself. Further, the first triad gives the intrinsic character of that which is contemplated at the first wing of the seraph; the second triad is suggestive of what is contemplated at the second wing of the seraph; and the third triad is suggestive of what is contemplated at the third wing of the seraph. Thus the triads reflect the structure of the work as well as reflecting each other. And we, in knowing the material world, reflect the triads, in whose reflection we see the divine power, wisdom, and goodness. This is not even getting into the fact that there are seven ways in which these triads reflect God's power, wisdom, and goodness -- origin, magnitude, multitude, beauty, plenitude, activity, order -- each of which is analyzable into a triad, and this triad is, depending on which of the three ways we look at it, one of the three triads above with respect to that particular property of creatures.

The second wing concerns the material world as sensible (and we have opinion or belief rather than rigorous knowledge about the material world precisely as sensible); it is the world as macrocosm ingressing, so to speak, into the mind as microcosm through the senses. Recognizing that everything that is moved is moved by another, we recognize in sensation itself the need for a higher cause of some kind. In each sensation we find an apprehension, a delight or fulfillment of our sensory capacities deriving from this apprehension, and a judgment about what we sense deriving from them both. At each level of sensation we have a suggestion of something divine: the first, in which we apprehend objects through their similitudes in the medium connecting them and us, gives us some recognition of the possibility of divine emanation through which we may know God; the second, in which we are pleased or fulfilled by this apprehension arising from the harmony of the object with our ability to sense them, we have some recognition of the possibility of divine harmony through which we may delight in God; and in the third, in which we abstract from sensible things their changeableness, we have some recognition of divine eternity and immutability. At the sensible level we are most familiar with the quantitative character of the world, and Bonaventure draws on Augustine to identify seven kinds of 'number', which is (you will recall from above) associated with distinction, and thus seven kinds of distinctions in the sensible world, through which we can rise to their exemplar in divine wisdom. And divine wisdom, again, is the second member of the triad of divine attributes reflected by creaturely effects, which goes with the fact that we are considering the second wing of the seraph.

I am simplifying all of this somewhat; there are intricate interrelations I haven't mentioned. And all this occurs in the space of about ten to twenty pages. No other Christian theologian in the history of the Church can seriously rival Bonaventure's capacity for stating his full position with succinctness and concision. His ability to concentrate an extensive chain of reasoning into a few sentences by means of list and analogy is sometimes dizzying. But it is not mere game-playing. It is all very well thought out; he can justify by argument every single one of these reflections of reflections of reflections, and does, sometimes in the Itinerarium itself (although these arguments are stated with the same kind of super-concision) and usually also elsewhere. Bonaventure, even at his most readable (as in his Tree of Life, which is about the life of Christ, or his Legenda maior, which is his official life of St. Francis for the Franciscan order) cannot really be read; he must be unpacked, unspooled, unzipped. Just as in Aquinas we generally get theological reasoning in a form that begins to approach maximal usefulness as a pedagogical reference point for further discussion, what we generally get with Bonaventure is theological reasoning in a form approaching its maximal degree of concentrated conciseness. At least, nobody has ever been able to come up with a more concentrated form. It is a bit much for the mind to take in at once. But by thinking through Bonaventure closely you can always, always, learn a new way to see the world, one you hadn't thought of before.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Poem Draft


I am a leaf that grows on an infinite tree
that is itself but a flower on an infinite tree
that grows on a hill by an infinite road
that is lined with trees that are greater still
beneath the expanse of an infinite sky
that has seen the trees grow for infinite years
and a sun that will shine for an infinite age
while the infinite worlds in their boundless array
are rolling forever under infinite stars
that make up a world among infinite worlds
that all grow like one leaf on an infinite tree
that I behold in my hand with my infinite eye.