Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dreams of idleness

Samuel Johnson remarked, "If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation." Commenting on this C.S. Lewis said that he would "be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read [Italian epics] eight hours of each happy day."

Jerome K. Jerome contemplated something similar. As a young man he became ill and was prescribed rest:
I pictured to myself a glorious time--a four weeks' dolce far niente with a dash of illness in it. Not too much illness, but just illness enough--just sufficient to give it the flavor of suffering and make it poetical. I should get up late, sip chocolate, and have my breakfast in slippers and a dressing-gown. I should lie out in the garden in a hammock and read sentimental novels with a melancholy ending, until the books should fall from my listless hand, and I should recline there, dreamily gazing into the deep blue of the firmament, watching the fleecy clouds floating like white-sailed ships across its depths, and listening to the joyous song of the birds and the low rustling of the trees. Or, on becoming too weak to go out of doors, I should sit propped up with pillows at the open window of the ground-floor front, and look wasted and interesting, so that all the pretty girls would sigh as they passed by.
Much as I love reading I can't say I'd submit to illness - even small illness - in exchange for leisure time. At this point I'd be happy if I could work in the same town in which I live. (I'm working on it.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (channeling the Stoics)

From I:14. The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion.

Neither good nor ill is done to us by Fortune: she merely offers us the matter and the seeds: our soul, more powerful than she is, can mould it or sow them as she pleases, being the only cause and mistress of our happy state or our unhappiness. Whatever comes to us from outside takes its savour and its coulour from our internal attributes, just as our garments warm us not with their heat but ours, which they serve to preserve and sustain. Shelter a cold body under them and it will draw similar services from them for its coldness: that is how we conserve snow and ice. Study to the lazy, like abstinence from wine to the drunkard, is torture; frugal living to the seeker after pleasure, like exercise to the languid idle man, is torment: so too for everything else. Things are not all that painful nor harsh in themselves: it is our weakness, our slackness, which makes them so. To judge great and lofty things we need a mind which is like them: otherwise we attribute to them the viciousness which belongs to ourselves. A straight oar seems bent in water. It is not only seeing which counts: how we see counts too.

Come on then. There are so many arguments persuading men in a variety of ways to despise death and to endure pain: why do we never find a single one which applies to ourselves? Thoughts of so many different kinds have persuaded others: why cannot we each find the one that suits our own disposition? If a man cannot stomach a strong purgative and root out his malady, why cannot he at least take lenitive and relieve it? 'Opinio est quaedam effeminata ac levis, nec in dolore magis, quam eadem in voluptate: qua, cum liquescimus fluimusque mollitia, apis aculeum sine clamore ferre non possumus. Totum in eo est, ut tibi imperes.' [As much in pain as in pleasure, our opinions are trivial and womanish: we have been melted and dissolved by wantonness; we cannot even endure the sting of a bee without making a fuss. Above all we must gain mastery over ourselves.] We cannot evade Philosophy by immoderately pleading our human frailty and the sharpness of pain: Philosophy is merely constrained to have recourse to her unanswerable counterplea: 'Living in necessity is bad: but at least there is no necessity that you should go on doing so.' No one suffers long, save by his own fault. If a man has no heart fro either living or dying; if he has not will either to resist or to run away: what are we to do with him?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on money)

From I:14. The taste of good and evil things depends on our opinion.

I make my income and my expenditure run along in tandem: sometimes one pulls ahead, sometimes the other, but only drawing slightly apart. I live from day to day, pleased to be able to satisfy my present, ordinary needs: extraordinary ones could never be met by all the provision in the world.

And it is madness to expect that Fortune will ever supply us with enough weapons to use against herself. We have to fight with our own weapons: fortuitous ones will let us down at the crucial moment. If I do save up now, it is only because I hope to use the money soon - not to purchase lands that I have no use for but to purchase pleasure. 'Non esse cupidum pecunia est, non esse emacem vectigal est.' [Not to want means money: not to spend means income.] I have no fear, really, that I shall lack anything: nor have I any wish for more. 'Divitiarum fructus est in copia, copiam declarat satietas.' [The fruit of riches consists in abundance: abundance is shown by having enough.] I particularly congratulate myself that this amendment of life should have come to me at an age which is naturally inclined to avarice, so ridding me of a vice - the most ridiculous of all human madness - which is so common among the old.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Agnosticism versus fallibilism

Eric Reitan has a helpful post distinguishing between agnosticism and fallibilism. First, definitions:
In roughest terms, to be an agnostic is to withhold belief on a matter, whereas to be a fallibilist is to have a belief but recognize that you could be mistaken, that those who disagree with you could have some or all of the truth, and that it is important to comport yourself accordingly.
Then he sets up two epistemic circumstances to illustrate the difference:
Epistemic Circumstance 1 (EC1): You confront a body of presumptive evidence that "reasonable people" (however that is to be understood) generally accept, but you recognize that there are different ways of fitting that evidence into a coherent whole—different "stories" we can tell that fit just as well with the given evidence. In other words, we have certain mutually exclusive holistic ways of seeing the evidence, each of which maps onto the evidence just as well. For simplicity, let us assume there are only two such ways of seeing that fit as well onto the evidence, which we will call Worldviews A and B.

Epistemic Circumstance 2 (EC2): You confront a body of presumptive evidence that reasonable people generally accept, as well as certain further "apparent truths," that is, things you experience as clearly true/self-evident/obvious/hard to deny/intuitively correct. But some of the people you regard as rational don’t find these apparent truths nearly as apparent as you do, and may instead find other things evident which are hardly evident to you. So, within the total body of "evidence" with which you are confronted, some of it is "shared evidence" whereas some of it is "personal evidence." Now suppose that, as before, Worldviews A and B both map onto the shared evidence (and are the only worldviews you have so far encountered that do this). But now let us suppose, furthermore, that Worldview A maps well onto the conjunction of the shared evidence and your personal evidence, while B doesn’t (accepting B would force you to abandon things that seem clearly right to you). At the same time, Worldview B maps well onto the conjunction of the shared evidence and what is apparently the personal evidence of reasonable people other than you.
While there is no reason, on the evidence, to prefer A or B in EC1, there may be personal reasons. "You might find A more hopeful. Or you might like who you are better when you live as if A is true. Or perhaps you’ve grown up with a community that embraces A, and you continue to have a sense of solidarity with that community. Or perhaps you’ve tried to see the world through the lens of B and it just doesn’t sit right with you because of what you identify as mere quirks of personality. Or perhaps it is a combination of these factor." You make your choice while recognizing that your reasons are idiosyncratic and not required based on the evidence.

In EC2, on the other hand, you do have certain personal evidence that moves you to accept worldview A rather than B. But note that this decision is based on your personal evidence - evidence which is not accepted by other "reasonable" people. This leads you to hold your personal evidence with less confidence, though it certainly does not mean your personal evidence is wrong.
In EC1, your reasons for favoring A over B are ones that do not appear to you as evidence for the truth of A, and in this sense are seen by you as nothing but pragmatic reasons to operate as if A is true. But in EC2, your reasons for favoring A over B have the "look and feel" of evidence, that is, they seem to be truths that speak in favor of the truth of A. And this makes your epistemic situation clearly different. It means, among other things, that when you endorse A, it is because A seems right to you in a way that B does not. You favor A over B on the basis of considerations that present themselves to you as evidence for the truth of A and against the truth of B.
In EC1 you are agnostic on the theoretical level because you have no reason based on the evidence to hold one over the other, though you may have pragmatic or personal reasons. In EC2 you are not agnostic on the theoretical level because you do have evidence - albeit personal and not universally held - for holding A over B. These features require you to hold an attitude of fallibilism in EC2:
While A just seems right to you in a way that B does not, you also know that you are fallible, and you know that some of the evidence you are using in arriving at A is not regarded as veridical by other people who otherwise seem eminently reasonable. This fact alone does not make the evidence seem less veridical to you, but it does motivate an attitude of due caution, a willingness to investigate, to hear opposing arguments and be open to be moved by them if they do amount to "defeaters" of your presumptive evidence. And it also makes you resistent to condemning those who endorse B.
I'll leave the application of these distinctions as an exercise for the readers. I only wanted to note them here.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on discovering himself accidentally)

From I:10. On a ready or hesitant delivery

I cannot remain fixed within my disposition and endowments. Chance plays a greater part in all this than I do. The occasion, the company, the very act of using my voice, draw from my mind more than what I can find there when I exercise it and try it out all by myself. And that is why the spoken word is worth more than the written - if a choice can be made between things of no value.

This, too, happens in my case: where I seek myself I cannot find myself: I discover myself more by accident than by inquiring into my judgement. Suppose something subtle springs up as I write - I mean, of course, something which would be blunt in others but is acute in me. (Enough of these courtesies! When we say such things we all mean them to be taken in proportion to our abilities.) Later, I miss the point so completely that I do not know what I meant to say (some outsider has often rediscovered the meaning before I do). If every time that happened I were to start scraping out words with my eraser I would efface the whole of my Essays. Yet, subsequently, chance may make what I wrote clearer than the noon-day sun: it will be my former hesitations which then astonish me.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trollope and Eliot on preachers

No offense to any preacher who may read this. I don't agree with everything they say. I am posting it here because I was struck by how similar their thoughts were - even in sequence. (And you have to admit: Trollope, at least, is pretty funny.)

George Eliot, "Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming": Given, a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society? Where is that Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety? Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will then find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.


Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers: Here was a sermon to be preached before Mr. Archdeacon Grantly, Mr. Precentor Harding, and the rest of them! Before a whole dean and chapter assembled in their own cathedral! Before men who had grown old in the exercise of their peculiar services, with a full conviction of their excellence for all intended purposes! This too from such a man, a clerical parvenu, a man without a cure, a mere chaplain, an intruder among them; a fellow raked up, so said Dr. Grantly, from the gutters of Marylebone! They had to sit through it! None of them, not even Dr. Grantly, could close his ears, nor leave the house of God during the hours of service. They were under an obligation of listening, and that too without any immediate power of reply.


Eliot: Let him shun practical extremes and be ultra only in what is purely theoretic; let him be stringent on predestination, but latitudinarian on fasting; unflinching in insisting on the Eternity of punishment, but diffident of curtailing the substantial comforts of Time; ardent and imaginative on the pro-millennial advent of Christ, but cold and cautious toward every other infringement of the status quo. Let him fish for souls not with the bait of inconvenient singularity, but with the drag-net of comfortable conformity. Let him be hard and literal in his interpretation only when he wants to hurl texts at the heads of unbelievers and adversaries, but when the letter of the Scriptures presses too closely on the genteel Christianity of the nineteenth century, let him use his spiritualizing alembic and disperse it into impalpable ether. Let him preach less of Christ than of Antichrist; let him be less definite in showing what sin is than in showing who is the Man of Sin, less expansive on the blessedness of faith than on the accursedness of infidelity. Above all, let him set up as an interpreter of prophecy, and rival Moore's Almanack in the prediction of political events, tickling the interest of hearers who are but moderately spiritual by showing how the Holy Spirit has dictated problems and charades for their benefit, and how, if they are ingenious enough to solve these, they may have their Christian graces nourished by learning precisely to whom they may point as the "horn that had eyes," "the lying prophet," and the "unclean spirits." In this way he will draw men to him by the strong cords of their passions, made reason-proof by being baptized with the name of piety. In this way he may gain a metropolitan pulpit; the avenues to his church will be as crowded as the passages to the opera; he has but to print his prophetic sermons and bind them in lilac and gold, and they will adorn the drawing-room table of all evangelical ladies, who will regard as a sort of pious "light reading" the demonstration that the prophecy of the locusts whose sting is in their tail, is fulfilled in the fact of the Turkish commander's having taken a horse's tail for his standard, and that the French are the very frogs predicted in the Revelations.


Trollope: There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips.


Eliot: Pleasant to the clerical flesh under such circumstances is the arrival of Sunday! Somewhat at a disadvantage during the week, in the presence of working-day interests and lay splendors, on Sunday the preacher becomes the cynosure of a thousand eyes, and predominates at once over the Amphitryon with whom he dines, and the most captious member of his church or vestry. He has an immense advantage over all other public speakers. The platform orator is subject to the criticism of hisses and groans. Counsel for the plaintiff expects the retort of counsel for the defendant. The honorable gentleman on one side of the House is liable to have his facts and figures shown up by his honorable friend on the opposite side. Even the scientific or literary lecturer, if he is dull or incompetent, may see the best part of his audience quietly slip out one by one. But the preacher is completely master of the situation: no one may hiss, no one may depart.


Trollope: Let a professor of law or physics find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge's charge need be listened to perforce by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of Parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday's rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God's service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship, but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape which is the common consequence of common sermons.


Eliot: Like the writer of imaginary conversations, he may put what imbecilities he pleases into the mouths of his antagonists, and swell with triumph when he has refuted them. He may riot in gratuitous assertions, confident that no man will contradict him; he may exercise perfect free-will in logic, and invent illustrative experience; he may give an evangelical edition of history with the inconvenient facts omitted:--all this he may do with impunity, certain that those of his hearers who are not sympathizing are not listening. For the Press has no band of critics who go the round of the churches and chapels, and are on the watch for a slip or defect in the preacher, to make a "feature" in their article: the clergy are, practically, the most irresponsible of all talkers. For this reason, at least, it is well that they do not always allow their discourses to be merely fugitive, but are often induced to fix them in that black and white in which they are open to the criticism of any man who has the courage and patience to treat them with thorough freedom of speech and pen.


Trollope: With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood texts, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades if we neglect to comply with the injunctions he has given us! Yes, my too self-confident juvenile friend, I do believe in those mysteries which are so common in your mouth; I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation. The Bible is good, the prayer-book is good, nay, you yourself would be acceptable, if you would read to me some portion of those time-honoured discourses which our great divines have elaborated in the full maturity of their powers. But you must excuse me, my insufficient young lecturer, if I yawn over your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawlings and denouncings, your humming and hawing, your oh-ing and ah-ing, your black gloves and your white handkerchief. To me, it all means nothing; and hours are too precious to be so wasted—if one could only avoid it.

Alan Jacobs on making the Great Books your steady intellectual diet

Read what gives you delight - at least most of the time - and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don't make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant restaurant every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed. The poet W.H. Auden once wrote, "When one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit" - for our own personal Christmases and Easters, not for any old Wednesday.

It's noteworthy that what someone like the young Richard Rodriguez thought of as true and high seriousness - reading masterpieces and masterpieces only - Auden sees as "frivolous." This is not so paradoxical as it seems. What's frivolous is not the masterpiece itself, but the idea that at any given time I the reader am prepared to meet its standards, to rise to its challenges. Those challenges wear heavily upon the unprepared reader (at age ten or twenty or sixty) and as a result the reading, which in anticipation promised such riches of meaning, proves in fact to be that dread appointment with the elliptical trainers I mentioned earlier. And who needs that?
Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 23

Thursday, June 9, 2011

We make our contribution and depart

"I need to read this guy's books," I thought, as I was listening to an interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah. "Maybe I'll pick one up after I finish reading David Copperfield. But I'm also wanting to read some China Mieville and that book on Montaigne..."

I love discovering new authors and collecting book recommendations. Ever since I began reading for pleasure I've maintained book lists with the assiduity of a fantasy football fanatic. The web has given me vast resources for indulging this habit, from Arts and Letters Daily to Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" to Bookforum - which I had to quit following because I became so overwhelmed.

And overwhelmed is what I felt as I listened to that interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah. There are so many fascinating books out there - how can I ever read everything that interests me? Consider these facts from Linda Holmes' article "The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything":
Let's say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That's quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let's say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you're 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you're 80. That's 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot.

Let's do you another favor: Let's further assume you limit yourself to books from the last, say, 250 years. Nothing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enormous swaths of literature, of course, but we'll assume you're willing to write off thousands of years of writing in an effort to be reasonably well-read.

Of course, by the time you're 80, there will be 65 more years of new books, so by then, you're dealing with 315 years of books, which allows you to read about 20 books from each year. You'll have to break down your 20 books each year between fiction and nonfiction – you have to cover history, philosophy, essays, diaries, science, religion, science fiction, westerns, political theory ... I hope you weren't planning to go out very much.

You can hit the highlights, and you can specialize enough to become knowledgeable in some things, but most of what's out there, you'll have to ignore.
We have two options, she says. We must cull or surrender. Culling is deciding what is worth your time. Surrender "is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time." Holmes says culling is easy because it dismisses whole swaths of culture in an act of self-defense. "It's an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we're missing less painful."
Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That's the moment you realize you're separated from so much. That's your moment of understanding that you'll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there's something being performed somewhere in the world that you're not seeing that you would love.
What makes this a fact not only sad but beautiful is the realization that humanity has produced such a vast treasure of culture that a single lifetime cannot possibly comprehend it.

So we're bound to miss almost everything. But books, music, films, etc., are one of the primary ways we encounter ideas. If we're bound to miss almost everything then we are also bound to miss some of the greatest ideas of humanity. Moreover, we're bound to miss some of the greatest counterarguments to the ideas we already hold. Only by intensive specialization can we hope to hold certain opinions with great confidence. But we can't specialize in everything. In fact, most non-academics have little time to specialize at all.

As individuals we can only access parts of humanity's vast fund of knowledge over our lifetime. In the words of Edmund Burke, the individual is foolish but the species is wise. We are limited in every way.

(By quoting Edmund Burke I am showing the conservative pedigree of this bit of wisdom. Yet it is not the exclusive property of conservatives. It has been often remarked (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) that those modern conservatives who have become cheerleaders for capitalism aren't interested in conserving much of anything. No one in today's politics talks more about limits than the eco-left. What clearer example do we have of the dangerous consequences of arrogantly remaking the world than agribusinesses seeking to maximize profit? And haven't we learned anything in the past ten years about messianic foreign policy delusions? While many conservatives have not abandoned it, the recognition of limits has increasingly become, over the past few years, a feature of the left. Nevertheless, all sides have much to learn here.)

Socrates became the gadfly of Athens by insisting to those who had a reputation for wisdom that only those who recognized their own foolishness are, in fact, wise. This is the wisdom of limits and a guard against hubris. But it is important to note that Socrates' test for wisdom was not a discovery arising wholly from his own mind. It was a response to the Oracle of Delphi, which said that Socrates was the world's wisest man. Socrates couldn't believe this, so he began searching for a wiser man. Only after finding none did he came to understand the nature of his own wisdom.

Socrates received the gift of the oracle, examined it, modified it, and passed it on to those who were willing to receive it. This is our pattern. We receive some piece from humanity's fund of knowledge, examine it, modify it, and pass it on. Our contribution may be as small as passing that piece of knowledge on to someone else (as in raising children) - but that act contributes to the expansion of the fund of knowledge.

We do not build from the ground up out of our own private resources. Very few of us are either willing or capable of building a intellectual system. Even those who do are dependent on those who came before them. I am not responsible for answering every question or acquainting myself with every fact. I take what I have been given and, in the context of my life and interests, I make my contribution. To have done this without hubris, in recognition of my limits, and in gratitude for what I have received, is to have lived well.

In A Theology of Reading, Alan Jacobs passes on this arresting image from Kenneth Burke which encapsulates what I have attempted to say here:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mondays with Montaigne (on lying)

From I:9. On liars.

Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. If we realized the horror and weight of lying we would see that it is more worthy of the stake than other crimes. I find that people normally waste time quite inappropriately punishing children for innocent misdemeanors, tormenting them for thoughtless actions which lead nowhere and leave no trace. It seems to me that the only faults which we should vigorously attack as soon as they arise and start to develop are lying and, a little below that, stubbornness. Those faults grow up with the children. Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up. That is why some otherwise decent men are abject slaves to it. One of my tailors is a good enough fellow, but I have never heard him once speak a truth, not even when it would help him if he did so.

If a lie, like truth, had only one face we could be on better terms, for certainty would be the reverse of what the liar said. But the reverse side of truth has a hundred thousand shapes and no defined limits. The Pythagoreans make good to be definite and finite; evil they make indefinite and infinite. Only one flight leads to the bull's-eye: a thousand can miss it.

About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.