Saturday, February 26, 2011

Dickens and Christianity

The title of today's post is ambitious. A few paragraphs can only suggest the upper point of the summit of the tip of this iceberg. But my title is not quite as ambitious as the title of Dennis Walder's 1981 book, Dickens and Religion. While I've been reading David Copperfield, I've also been doing a little reading about Dickens, and over the last few days, I've looked a bit at this book by Walder and come away disappointed. The issues aren't extremely simple, but I've read about Dickens and about his faith for quite a while and even presented a paper at a professional literature conference about the expression of Dickens's faith in A Tale of Two Cities, so I have at least a right to think Walder is wrong about a few things.

But first, here are some things we agree on: (1) Finding out exactly what Dickens believed about many points of Christian theology is difficult. (2) Dickens freely shared his scornful view of Christian humbugs and sourpusses by including many such characters in his novels and depicting them in distinctly unfavorable light. (3) Dickens does not have his Christian characters quote scripture on every page, and when they do, they never begin by saying, "John 11:25 says . . . ."

But I must part company with Walder, for instance, when he says Dickens had "no tolerance" for Catholics. Dickens may never have written a book presenting Roman Catholic characters as lovable heroes with a right view of Christianity and a firm grasp on the kind of good life that he so highly valued, but that doesn't mean he had no tolerance for them. In fact, his little-known gem Barnaby Rudge tells a story set during the anti-Catholic riots of  1780, and the characters who have no tolerance for Catholics are clearly the villains of the tale. Perhaps Dickens simply disagreed with Catholics regarding the correctness of Catholicism, but nevertheless thought them no more deserving of humiliation, torture, or death because of it.  Why is that position so difficult to recognize? I suppose it's because our current culture, with no toleration for intolerance (or for tolerance, either, if truth be told), recognizes no middle ground between celebrational embrace of others' viewpoints and outright hatred for them.

Similarly, Walder says that Dickens usually portrays fervent prayer as the practice of a hypocrite. Yes, many of his characters pray for "sinners" (i.e., other people) without showing love to them, or shine with missionary zeal while letting their own neglected households decline in the dark. But many good people in his books pray, as well; I thought immediately of Mrs. Jerry Cruncher from A Tale of Two Cities who prays repeatedly for her husband despite his violent insistence that she stop, yet sees him changed by the end of the book and grateful for her constancy. About her Walder says merely that he is unconvinced of Dickens's sympathy for her. (I'm convinced.)

Most puzzling, though, is Walder's claim that "Dickens was not a religious novelist; nor were any of his novels primarily religious in intention or effect." It's odd first of all that Walder would drain his title of almost all interest (on page 15 nonetheless), but it's also odd considering Dickens's own declarations of his religious intentions and considering the novels' religious effects at the time -- both of which Walder cites.  The epigram to Walder's chapter 1 quotes from a letter by Dickens to a Reverend Macrae:
With a deep sense of my great responsibility always upon me when I exercise my art, one of my most constant and most earnest endeavours has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are drawn from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving. Over and over again, I claim them in express words as disciples of the Founder of our religion; but I must admit that to a man (or a woman) they all arise and wash their faces, and do not appear unto men to fast.
Dickens says here clearly that he "always" but "unostentatiously" pursues a Christian agenda in his writing, and the quotation ends with an allusion to scripture defending the unostentatious approach.  In a similar vein, Dickens wrote this in 1870 to a Mr. John Makeham: "I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour . . . . But I have never made proclamation of this from the house-tops."

As for "religious effect," Walder tells the reader about the Social-Gospel Christians' fondness for Dickens early in his career and for the Evangelicals' ultimate embrace of the author in later years. But his claim that "Dickens was not a religious novelist" becomes even weirder late in his book when he points out that Dickens's later novels showed clear religious themes. He dismisses the late religious streak as sounding "contrived" (I disagree), but he admits it's there. So why doesn't he start his book by saying, "Dickens was a religious novelist, but he disguised the religion at first and later revealed it only in a contrived way"?

I think the answer is that Walder thinks Dickens was not a "religious novelist" because he thinks Dickens wasn't a very religious person. Several times he seems to try to convince the reader that Dickens's Christianity wasn't quite the real thing, without saying it that bluntly. He points out that Dickens resented being taken as a child to a hellfire-and-brimstone service. He points out that Dickens's sister Fanny claimed later to have become "serious" about religion, and concludes from that statement that the family she grew up with (including Charles) was not serious. And he opines that for Dickens, moral action was more important than doctrine.

I respond thus: (1) I would have resented being taken as a child to a hellfire-and-brimstone service. (2) The degree of a family's religious seriousness does not always follow that of its oldest daughter. (3) At the separation of the sheep and the goats, Jesus does not give a doctrinal test. (4) Dickens was not entirely void of orthodox Christian doctrinal understanding. With no apparent cynicism or irony, his novels proclaim (sometimes in the narrator's voice, sometimes in that of a character) God's ability and desire to forgive, Jesus's power to perform miracles, and the grounding in his life, death, and resurrection of all our claims to mercy, new life, and hope for eternal reward. And he penned this hymn:

Charles Dickens

Hear my prayer, O heavenly Father,
Ere I lay me down to sleep;
Bid Thy angels, pure and holy,
Round my bed their vigil keep.

My sins are heavy, but Thy mercy
Far outweighs them, every one;
Down before Thy cross I cast them,
Trusting in Thy help alone.

God alone can truly judge the sincerity of anyone's faith. I can only say that for thirty-five years now, the writings of Charles Dickens have had profound religious effects on this Christian.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

David Copperfield's Memory

My grandpa used to tell the same few jokes and stories over and over. I enjoyed them every time he told them, at first because a child never tires of hearing a good story repeated, but later simply because they were his.  One of these oft-rehearsed stories told of a true incident that happened one day as he was playing the cornet in a public concert in the town square. During the concert, he would tell me, he noticed a man dressed in a fine suit watching him to the exclusion of the other band members. After the concert this well-dressed man approached the stage and offered my grandpa a job as orchestra leader at the Gaiety Theater in St. Louis. Every time he told this story, as he got to the words "in a fine suit," Grandpa would straighten up, cast his eyes as if looking into the distance, and rub his right hand up and down the middle of his torso, as if feeling the buttons of the fine suit or perhaps smoothing down the fabric. I always knew at those moments that this memory was especially strong and that the man from St. Louis was vividly present to my grandpa as he told the story, along with the crowd, the town square, and the other musicians. My grandpa and his house are vividly present to me as I relate the story now.

In this, my third reading of David Copperfield, I'm noticing as never before the theme of vivid memories. (I say I never noticed it before, but perhaps I did and then forgot about it, since my power of memory is not as strong as either David's or Dickens's.) Told in the first person, the story of course depends on the memory of the main character. But many first-person novels simply assume the accuracy of memory, while David talks about it explicitly. He says that he believes children begin with high powers of memory and of observation and that differences in these skills among adults result rather from some people declining in the abilities than from the others acquiring them. He often mentions his inability to recall clearly certain details (usually points regarding the passage of time or ordering of events). But despite these lapses, he says numerous times that his memories are so vivid as he recounts his history, that he suffers all the original physiological reactions again: blushes, increased pulse rate, nausea, tingling skin, and so forth. It is as though all the people David ever met leave copies in his mind that continue to live there palpably and almost independently. In the novel's preface, Dickens relates all these characters from the book to himself in this same way: as a crowd that lived in his brain as a real part of himself.

David often indicates the vividness of his memories by speaking in the present tense. "Here we stand, all three, before me now," he says once, including the shadow image of himself among the tangible memories. Most of the chapter titles are in the present tense: "I Have a Memorable Birthday," "I Fall into Captivity," and so on. And one entire chapter, covering most of his teen years, is written entirely in the present tense.

The theme of memories living vividly in the mind goes through a hundred variations in the book. Here are four: (1) Pictorial or narrative art can capture vivid memories and communicate them to others: David knows his Aunt Betsey when he sees her from the repeated stories of her that his mother has told him, and Agnes knows her mother only through her portrait. (2) Even fictional characters -- such as David's favorite, Roderick Random -- take on such reality after repeated readings and hearings that David often feels he like an incarnation of one of these characters when he goes through similar experiences. (3) David sometimes remembers having memories. Sometimes the memories of memories relay the emotional reactions, but at least once he remembers but no longer feels the emotions associated with the original experience, and several times his present emotional reaction is one of laughter at the original emotional reaction. (4) Some characters live with vivid imaginations of the future: Micawber's assurance that something will turn up makes frequent appearances.

One of the marks of great imaginative literature is this revelation of details of life, things unnoticed before that many times seem obvious once they have been pointed out. With more depth and nuance than I would find in a typical psychology textbook, Dickens shows me myself through David. I, too, have the most vivid memories about people, situations, and unified events, not about the passage of time. I, too, see myself in some memories from the perspective of an outside observer. I, too, have memories that cause reactions as strong as those of the original experience. I, too, can distinguish memories of memories, memories of reactions to memories, etc. And I, too, find myself sometimes living as though I were a familiar character; I have embodied David Copperfield many times in my life, as I feel I am doing now, retracing my life and logging my memories of memories.

To finish the story of my grandpa's memories: I suspect that, had he taken the job, he would have been shocked to find out what kind of orchestra he was to lead and what kind of Gaiety went on at the Theater.  But he asked his mother -- a woman whose birth name, Ada Bell Creech, would seem right at home in Dickens's world -- for advice, and she responded, "I wish you wouldn't play for those ol' shows."  So he didn't.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Listening to Books

Last weekend, I spent several hours alone driving back and forth to Lubbock, Texas, for a music-theory conference.  (You can't imagine how exciting these are!)  In the last few years, my preferred entertainment on these long drives consists of listening to recorded books.  I tried audiobooks for the first time just a few years ago and surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it and how much I was able to pay attention without constantly having to press "rewind."

For a while I stuck with whatever I could find at the local public library.  Non-fiction worked best at first.  A book with short biographies of the American Presidents (by an author whose name I forget at the moment) interested me so much, I listened to it twice.  The essays on Pierce and Hayes stayed with me the most.  Tragedy marked Franklin Pierce's presidency: Having watched his son die in a train wreck on his way to the capital city to be inaugurated, Pierce later approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act, negating the peace-keeping Compromise of 1820, and watched the beginning of the final rapid decline of the nation toward civil war.  After his term, hated by both North and South, he claimed to see no reason to live and wasted his remaining years in drunkenness.  Rutherford B. Hayes, by contrast, left his mostly unremarkable term as Chief Executive with the thought that a former President ought to have some cache for achieving good in this world and used his to establish schools for black children in the South.  While many people in the last few years have called Carter the best ex-President, my vote goes to Hayes.

Other highlights from the non-fiction shelves include Cal Ripken Jr's autobiography (how hard it was, he says, to teach our children not to talk with strangers when strangers constantly approached me with only the friendliest of intentions), a biography of Lou Gehrig (Hollywood thought of having him play Tarzan until they found that he looked too muscular in a loincloth), and Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods read by the author himself (don't take a backpack full of Snickers on your hike up the Appalachian Trail).  The Greatest Generation brought tears to my eyes several times, and Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue ended with one of the best stories I've ever heard.

Even the best audiobooks didn't always completely satisfy, though.  Eric Simonson's account of his search on Everest for lost mountaineer George Mallory fascinated me, but what I heard made it clear that I needed to see the actual print book for the key photo.  Nothing can express the horrifying danger of climbing Everest like the photo of Mallory's frozen body, found clutching desperately for seventy-five years at a bank of ice sloping downward toward a thousand-foot sheer drop.

My first attempts at non-non-fiction didn't work so well.  I got lost among the details of a Brother Cadfael mystery and couldn't make any sense of the solution, and Shakespeare's sonnets proved too dense to listen to one after the other.  I followed Wuthering Heights much better -- too well, in fact.  The stunning performance by Patricia Routledge (the fecklessly striving Hyacinth Bucket from BBC's hilarious Keeping Up Appearances) rendered the angst of Heathcliff and Catherine so intensely, I could barely stand listening to the painful story.  I'm sure the printed word mollifies the pummeling emotional effect of the tale quite a bit, but I don't plan on finding out soon.

But after this I hit a fictional hot streak.  The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Morality for Beautiful Girls, and The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith all had me completely charmed with their rambling plots, exotic-yet-familiar settings, and fascinating characters wrestling with problems of being good and doing good in this world.  Jeremy Irons's reading of Brideshead Revisited made one of the twentieth century's best novels even better; Irons got to play one part in the classic miniseries, and in the audiobook he played all of them.  I was especially amazed at the ease with which he raised the pitch of his voice for the female characters without ever sounding like members of a certain British comedy troupe.  Conversely, Davina Porter's expert performance of even the male characters in Anna Karenina helped me get through that beautiful but extremely lengthy tome -- well, that and a couple of flights to England.

Last year I discovered a new, free source of audiobooks:  (The best place to search and sample their catalog is on the Internet Archive.)  All the recordings are done by volunteers: you yourself could read a book for them to make available to the world.  But while one might think the quality of readings by well-meaning yet unpaid enthusiasts would range from charmingly mediocre to brain-gratingly dreadful, my first experience with librivox was perfect: a lovely actress named Mil Nicholson reading Dickens's Dombey and Son.  Florence was sweet but not cloying, Mrs. Chick was arch but not melodramatic.  Captain Cuttle was three-dimensionally present with me in the car, he was so good.  And I will always imagine Mr. Toots's byword, "It is of no consequence," in the voice Ms. Nicholson gave him.  I wrote to Mil Nicholson recently to thank her for volunteering her eminent talents; she kindly responded and suggested I try some of her other Dickens novels available on librivox.

Sadly, David Copperfield is not among them.  I'll not comment on the quality of the unpaid readers who took turns reading the chapters I listened to last weekend except to say that this great novel's beauty runs so deep, it flows freely through any amateur performance and even (the readers of some chapters forced me to it) through the mechanical reading of the Kindle.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How to Win Arguments and Influence People

Aristotle is funny.  In his classes and in his writings (which may have been the same thing, if what we have to read today are really class notes taken by students), he went about pinpointing the truth as precisely as he could; yet in personal encounters, he was not above using a bit of chicanery to win a point.

Artistotle's Topics presents practical advice, systematically arranged, for winning an argument.  In service of this goal, it draws in aspects of logic, understanding, and argumentation from his Prior Analytics, Metaphysics, and Rhetoric, and I'm glad I had read at least parts of each of those three books before undertaking this one.  Plato taught that rhetoric was to logic as cosmetics was to exercise: the first seeks only appearances while the second aims at an actual good (truth in the case of logic, health in the case of exercise).  To fool someone into agreeing with you, Plato said, was a vicious practice.  The much more practical Aristotle, on the other hand, knowing that sometimes the good law has to be passed by a less-than-intelligent assembly or the case won before a less-than-perceptive jury, accepted any effective means of winning the moment.

In the Topics, he often speaks of "finding lines of attack," and the book consists mostly of a systematic list of ways to look for chinks in the opponent's armor.  For instance, did he make a claim using an ambiguous word?  Then disprove it by using the meaning that he did not intend.  Never mind that your riposte doesn't address the issue at hand; confusing your opponent helps your case.  Likewise, lead him into making points that you can easily refute.  And concede only unimportant or tangential points; the uselessness of the conclusions he can draw from them will disconcert him for a moment.  As I read through all this advice, it seems to me that Aristotle constantly has an audience in mind, jeering at each stumble and applauding each touch of the rapier.

Readiness to take on any opponent requires proficiency in logic, because of course the fellow might slip up and use a syllogism incorrectly.  You, on the other hand, are free to use any specious logic or shortcuts that you can get away with.  The venture also requires a knowledge of metaphysics, because every claim your opponent makes involves a subject and a predicate -- terms we learned as kids when we didn't know we were learning Aristotelian metaphysics -- and, because of the nature of existence, the subject and predicate must have an appropriate relationship; in other words, predicates must follow certain rules without which they don't do any good.  For instance, the predicate must not use any word used in the subject.  (I remember hearing that Aristotelian rule, too, when my grade-school teacher told me I couldn't use a word in its own definition.  Of course, credit was not given to the Philosopher.)  And a correct predicate must refer to a genus that is ontologically prior to the subject.  (For instance, your room has walls and corners, but the walls are prior, because you can have a wall without a corner but not a corner without a wall.  So don't use corners to explain walls.)  Finally, successful argumentation requires knowledge of rhetoric, because that field of study teaches the art of persuasion through expertise in language and in psychology.

Rather than poking holes in someone else's case, though, all of the book's rules can be turned around to strengthen one's own communication.  Aristotle may write almost all of it as a plan of attack on an enemy, but suppose we say, like Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."  The most important rule I see so far in the Topics is that every claim should make the subject more intelligible to the listener.  In other words, the predicate of each sentence should be easier to understand than its subject and, as a result, should make the subject better known.  Do I always do this?  Mostly do this?  Ever do this?  I should go back and check each sentence of this post to see if it passes the tests, but I'm afraid I'll quickly disconcert myself with the attack and never press "publish."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

With Malice Toward None

Some books are on my list not because they constitute great literature but because they are about great themes.  And no doubt Ronald C. White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech belongs in this category of less-than-great books about great matters.  Lincoln went to his second inauguration riding a tidal wave of victories secured by Grant and Sherman; the war that both sides thought would last only a few days was, after four bitter years, at last truly only days from ending.  As White explains, while in these circumstances virtually everyone expected a speech full of self-congratulating celebration and practical plans for Reconstruction, what they heard instead was a confession of national guilt and that rarest of acknowledgments: that God is not a partisan of the victorious.  Where Lincoln's second greatest speech situated the events of a great battle in the greater context of the meaning of our country and its example to the globe, the Second Inaugural situated the meaning of our country in the cosmically greater context of the inscrutable will of God.  Great matters indeed.

With no malice intended, I offer examples of some of the problems with the mechanics and rhetoric of this book.  First, White often uses the linking verb to build the most awkward constructions.  He writes, for example, "A vexing question was whether a war begun to preserve the Union could be transformed into a war to end slavery."  Having found an excellent verb, he hid it in a participle and built a clunky sentence around the verb was.  Much better to say, "The question whether a war . . . could be transformed . . . vexed Lincoln."  A little confused about both his grammar and Lincoln's, White calls "with malice toward none" an imperative.  Often these slightly awkward, slightly off-center sentences just miss adding up to solid paragraphs, as well, and a larger thread usually occupies no more than two or three of these paragraphs before a horizontal line introduces another chunky idea.

Despite these weakness, though, White makes many excellent points and leads the reader through a deeply emotional, intellectual, and spiritual encounter with these profound words.  The first half of the speech, always perfunctory to me before, took on new depth as White located hidden alliteration and assonance and pointed out Lincoln's use of generic terms to keep a reasoned tone, most notably "one party" where he could have said "rebels" or "traitors."  But White's analysis of this early portion helped even more where he explained Lincoln's surprisingly frequent use of the passive voice as a way to prepare his point that the human participants of the war were not in fact the effective agents of its course.  Capping this line of reasoning, White observes that with the short blunt sentence "And the war came," war changes its role as a grammatical object earlier in the speech to that of grammatical subject, again reflecting and teaching Lincoln's view that people did not control events.

As good as the early analysis is, the book really takes fire in its examination of the second half of the speech.  Where Lincoln says that participants on both sides read the same Bible, White stops to explore the place of the Bible in American society at that time and to tell some fascinating stories about how Bibles reached the soldiers, especially those in the blockaded Confederacy, where no publishers of Bibles existed.  White also taught me some things about prominent theological issues at the time -- most importantly that no interested person then would mistake belief in God's sovereignty with a philosophy of determinism or fatalism, a mistake commonly made in present-day accounts of Lincoln -- and about Lincoln's relationships and discussions with two very interesting, well-read pastors.  And White showed me a totally new angle on the phrase "American Slavery."  Where before I had thought that Lincoln used the adjective "American" to distinguish the institution from other kinds of slavery in history, White showed that Lincoln used "American" rather than "Southern" to declare that the blame for the institution rested on the shoulders of everyone in the country, north and south.  In this Second Inaugural Address, which White near the end of his book calls a sermon, Lincoln points the people of the United States to God as the only explanation for events, as the only judge of America's sin, and as the only possible ground for healing.  In White's best sentence, he says, "Instead of rallying his supporters, in the name of God, to support the war, he asked his listeners, quietly, to imitate the ways of God."

Lincoln's words themselves I would consider great literature.  You can read the entire speech in about three minutes at this site.  Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals offers a moving, enlightening, entertaining -- and impeccably written -- parallel biography of Lincoln and his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860: Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and William Seward.  My favorite book about Lincoln is the little-known Lincoln's Melancholy, written by Joshua Shenk and given to me by the most perceptively kind student I've ever had; I'm not sure how she knew I would love it, but she did.  I agree with White that the most recent biography of Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, disappoints in its insistence that throughout his life Lincoln ultimately remained passive in the face of forces beyond his control.  As much as Lincoln and the Civil War interest me, I have never read even part of Sandburg's monumental biography.  Sandburg made a one-volume condensation; I should put it and the biographies by Oates and Thomas on my reading list -- for the third decade.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Outdoor Exercise with Aristotle

In researching some physical ailments over the last year, I happened to read twice about the importance of exercising outside.  Apparently the exertion in the fresh air does wonders for brain chemistry similar to effects of certain popular pharmaceuticals.  I found this news reassuring since I try to take a thirty-minute walk outside (while reading) every day.  Getting out the door helps us feel better and think better, but the catch is that it doesn't always feel good at the moment.  For one thing, the advice I found said the effect requires exercise, not just relaxing in the sun.  For another, the weather isn't always perfect (well, in most places it isn't), so getting this regular exercise in means having the discipline to go out even when it's too hot or too cold or too cloudy or too sunny, even when the snow hasn't entirely melted, and sometimes even in a misty drizzle (although then I leave the book inside).

Although Aristotle is too heavy (in two senses of the term) to read while walking, reading Aristotle affects me much as outdoor exercise does.  The phrase "like a breath of fresh air" always comes to mind when Aristotle comes up in my yearly schedule, and yet it isn't easy going by any means.

The first feature that strikes me each time I return to Aristotle contributes to both sides of the image -- both the invigorating surge of clear-headed good feelings and the daunting nature of a task that requires determined pertinacity to accomplish.  Every year, Aristotle delights me again with his sense of organization.  The Topics, like many of his treatises, is divided into books, which in turn divide into chapters.  This helpful kind of organization survives and is common today: each of Aristotle's books, for instance, would correspond to a chapter in a modern textbook, and each of Aristotle's chapters to a section with a subheading.  In the first chapter of the first book of the Topics, Aristotle explains the subject of the book: dialectical reasoning.  In chapter 2, he tells us the uses of the material (intellectual training, casual encounters, and investigation in the philosophical sciences), in chapter 3 the goals of the study (to be prepared to meet any challenge), and in chapter 4 the main divisions of the study (propositions concerning essential properties, concerning definitions, concerning genera, and concerning accidental traits).  What could be clearer?

Well, many modern textbooks are clearer -- even some music-theory textbooks.  The problem is that Aristotle doesn't always follow through on his organized plans.  For instance, the first chapter says that the book is about reasoning that draws necessary conclusions from given premises (i.e., deductive reasoning), but the ensuing chapters include several examples of induction.  Again, Aristotle defines the differences between problems and propositions in chapter 4, but later doesn't keep to his defined distinction.  (Although to be fair to him, Aristotle casually mentions in chapter 11 of Book I that consistency of terminology is not as important as understanding the actual distinctions of things.)  Scholars suggest that what we read now are not words penned by the Philosopher himself but class notes taken by students.  I always imagine that the inconsistencies and outright mistakes (as far as I can tell) must be due to a student who couldn't quite keep up with the lecture.

While dealing with Aristotle's organization starts out as an energizing experience but leads to hard work, assimilating the content usually goes the other way: from lucubration to satisfying enlightenment.  Sometimes only the laborious, confused reading of several days can result in a refreshing moment of clarity, as it did two years ago when I was reading about syllogisms in the Posterior Analytics.

I once heard a professor say that Aristotle's syllogisms didn't prove anything.  Knowing (a) that All men are mortal and (b) that Socrates is a man may lead logically to (c) that Socrates is mortal.  But it doesn't prove this conclusion to a human who doesn't know it already.  Without knowing that Socrates is mortal, said the professor, we don't know that all men are mortal, and without the first premise, we have no syllogism.  Well, this was not the first time I had heard unjust attacks on Aristotle.  Peter Kreeft somewhere offers one counterargument to the attack: we know that all men are mortal not by inductively adding up all the instances but by contemplating human nature.

But Aristotle shocked me two years ago by saying that the syllogism isn't about proving the third line at all.  Rather, he says, it is about finding the middle term.  I read for many days about the wit it takes to find the middle, but I didn't have the wit to understand what he meant by it.  Then one day the pieces fell into place: finding the middle term is like finding the second premise of a syllogism after observing the conclusion.  For instance, I observe that my coffee is hot.  What makes it so?  In Aristotle's teaching, the answer is the middle term: having been heated.  The syllogism might go like this: (a) All heated things are hot.  (b) My coffee has been heated.  (c) My coffee is hot.  The first line gives a universal rule that the investigator knows already.  The last line gives an observation that the investigator wants to explain.  The second line, not the "conclusion" to the syllogism, is the conclusion that the investigator draws.  You might say we start with observations and principles and then seek the particular circumstance that led to the observation.  That process goes on every day in my house when I lose my keys, on CSI as the investigators try to piece together the history of a crime, and in a thousand other cases.

One might also start with observations and controlled circumstances and then seek the principles, as, say, Galileo did.  But that's a different story.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


A couple of days ago I had an exciting experience that happens perhaps only two or three times in a year: starting two books on the same day.  In this case, I began Aristotle's Topics and Ronald C. White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech.  Among other subjects related to winning arguments, Aristotle talks about the importance of knowing and spotting words that have more than one meaning, and it occurred to me that a couple of ideas I wanted to write about can each be signified by the same word: margins.

First, I was able to start both of these books earlier than planned because I had built up some margin or leeway in my reading schedule.  We've had more snow than usual for central Oklahoma in the last few weeks, and the University has already canceled classes on six separate days.  While I laughed about it yesterday with some other folks originally from more northern climes, I also took advantage of Oklahomans' skittishness by reading a lot on those snow days.

The word leeway comes from sailing.  (I hope I come across it when I read The Reverse of the Medal later this year.)  When moving between the wind and a shoreline, a captain must leave extra distance between ship and shore so the inevitable drift from the wind doesn't ground the vessel.  Since the side of a ship (or island) away from the wind is called the lee side, this extra distance is called leeway.  Plenty of surprises happen in the course of a year, most of which tend to take time away from reading and blow me closer to a shipwreck of the Reading Plan.  So accumulated leeway brings me the comfort of an experienced skipper.

Reopening the first volume of Aristotle from the Britannica set the other day reminded me of a second meaning of margins: the once-empty space at the edge of a page that I have written in.  Just yesterday, I was talking to some colleagues about the historical importance of a certain music-theory textbook because of its introduction of many now-standard features to help the student: the book has self-quizzes, handy lists of terms, clear charts, definitions set off from the rest of the text, and nice, wide margins.  Now, the margins provide a lot of white space that might merely help make the book less intimidating to freshmen, but I fondly hope that some of my students write notes in these margins.

I used to have some kind of misplaced respect for books that kept me from spoiling their purity, but I have replaced that sentiment with a more profound reverence that sometimes fills margins with scribbling.  (All this marginal writing will make it harder for my survivors to sell the books, but I pretend it will make things easier for the biographers!)  I've even been known to write in library books.  OK, it was a really confusing chart in a theory book in the music library, and it took me twenty minutes to figure out that it was labeled incorrectly.  So I wrote in the correction, and then signed and dated my act of good-hearted vandalism.

In the margins of Aristotle's books on logic and argumentation (the Organon), I see an eighth note as a sign of some reference to music, a message to myself to check a different page for a clearer explanation of some presently opaque topic (I guess neither explanation stuck. *sigh*), some clarification of letter designations in pages about syllogisms (such as "S = middle term"), some definitions captured probably only after a couple of days of confused reading, and -- most importantly -- diagrams I devised to help me understand Aristotle's three classes of syllogism.  When I reread a book, these marginal comments almost always help: sometimes they clarify a point that confuses me again on the second encounter, but sometimes they encourage me by offering an explanation for a passage that I no longer need an explanation for.

A third use of this multivalent word: this sentence marks the margin of today's post.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Optimistic Pessimist

I have many hesitations about writing publicly on Buddhist scriptures.  First, I'm not commenting only on some literature that many people enjoy; I'm reviewing literature that millions of people live by.  Second, I'm not even sure if millions of people do in fact live by these words.  As I understand it, (1) ancient Buddhist writings far outnumber ancient Hebrew or Greek religious writings, surahs of the Koran, etc., (2) there is no recognized canon of these scriptures, and (3) current-day Buddhists interpret and use these writings in different ways as they find them enlightening or helpful.  So if in my tiny sampling of Buddhist writings I imagine some element as prominent, I may be as far off course as an Asian reading the first few chapters of Genesis and thinking that Judaism and Christianity center around giants.

Nevertheless, this fool rushes in and comments on about a hundred pages printed in the old Harvard Classics Five-Foot Shelf of Books.

My first thought is that these tracts are much more in line with "western" logic than I supposed.  I had a vague notion that Buddhists believed that the law of noncontradiction (a thing cannot be both A and not-A in the same respect and at the same time) was invalid (or perhaps both valid and invalid in the same respect and at the same time).  So I was not surprised to read that someone asked the Buddha whether the saint exists after death, or does not exist after death, or both exists and does not exist after death, or neither exists nor does not exist after death, as if there were four possibilities and not just two.  But the Buddha does not acknowledge these categories, responding instead that answering the question would only detract from the more important issue: seeking to put an end to the cycle of rebirth, death, and misery.

In another passage, where the Buddha seems at first to say that neither the existence of things nor the nonexistence of things is true (where Aristotle's logic would say one of those two states would have to obtain), in the end he seems to say only that the insistent belief either way is an extreme.  He teaches a middle way of understanding: that the interdependent nexus of ignorance, karma, consciousness, name and form, organs of sense, contact, sensation, desire, attachment, existence, birth, and finally death and despair, come into being simultaneously and cease to exist simultaneously.

I found another part of the Buddha's teaching on existence reminiscent of Aristotle, as well.  He declares that there is no ego, only a combination of body, perception, predispositions, and consciousness arranged in a certain relation.  To one who doubts, he points out that the same is true of a wagon: "wagon" does not refer to one thing but to a collection of things in a particular arrangement.  Where Plato would argue with the Buddha that a unity called "wagon" does indeed exist, only in a realm of eternal, self-existent ideals, Aristotle would say something very similar to the Buddha's teaching: that the physical wagon is a composite, and that "wagon" as a unity is an abstraction that a mind draws from perception of the physical wagon and has an existence only in the mind.

Well, that's all well and good for wagons since wagons don't go into crisis when confronted with the idea that they might not exist.  But humans do struggle when faced with the idea that the ego -- the I, or the soul -- might not exist or is only an abstraction in a mind that might cease to be.  The Buddha's answer to this struggle seems to be that we should each start on a path toward wisdom, detaching ourselves from all things (including ourselves) and all desire for things, and move toward a final dissolution of consciousness and all its misery.

The Buddha's vision of the ultimate nature of things seems so dark: that only evil things come into being and decay, that life is all misery, and that our best hope is in self-annihilation.  What a contrast to, for instance, Aquinas's insistence that existence itself is good and that any existing thing is, so far as it exists, good.  Evil, Aquinas says, does not exist as a thing but is only absence of existence, as darkness does not exist positively but is only absence of light; that a thing is evil in some regard means that it lacks something it should have or does not reach its proper potential.  Compared to that view, the Buddha's is pessimistic indeed.  And yet he was so optimistic about our ability to reach the escape from misery.  He declares himself "the chief in all the world" and defeats the death-god Mara by means of his own virtue and merit even when Sakka, the king of the gods, must flee in terror.  To become greater and stronger than the gods takes unfathomable virtue and merit, and yet one acquires this merit in order to escape utter misery by removing oneself from existence.

What if neither the Buddha nor Plato were right while Aristotle was close to being correct?  What if "I" am an idea in an eternal Mind that did not abstract the idea from perceiving an existent composite but instead conceived the idea and then gave it existence?  In my view, this knowledge begins the road not just to the end of despair and misery, but to happiness.  The Buddha did actually acknowledge that a creator might have fashioned him, but when he attained complete wisdom, he sang defiance to his maker:

          O builder! I've discovered thee!
          This fabric thou shalt ne'er rebuild!
          Thy rafters all are broken now,
          And pointed roof demolished lies!
          This mind has demolition reached,
          And seen the last of all desire!

This fool will now take a stab at wisdom by ending his commentary.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

It's All Latin to Me

Latin is a very difficult language to learn.  I know; I worked on teaching myself for many years and can still make it through a few lines of the Aeneid only very slowly and with a dictionary.  And yet just a couple hundred years ago, university classes in Europe were still held in Latin.  In order to make this possible, all young people destined to go to university studied Latin in preparation for the experience.  By the time the teen-ager matriculated, supposing everything proceeded according to plan, he could read Virgil's epic and had parts of it memorized.  Scholarly authors such as Joseph Addison, who appears in Thackeray's Henry Esmond, wrote poems in Latin, poems read, enjoyed, and critiqued by Pope and Johnson and indeed anyone with a university education and interested in literature.  It's no wonder that casual conversation among such people was peppered with Latin phrases -- some from the works they had all studied and some made up on the spot for the occasion at hand.

Henry Esmond has a Cambridge education, goes to war along with Richard Steele, dines with Joseph Addison, and meets but dislikes Jonathan Swift, so of course his conversation and even his narrative includes many phrases from the classic tongue.  Today I offer a look at several of the ones I've come across so far.  I had to look up almost all the references; some of the translations I borrowed, and some are my own.

maxima debetur pueris reverentia: We owe the greatest respect to children.  (Juvenal)  The phrase refers to the care we ought to show in raising and teaching them, not to any obligation we have to listen to them or cater to their wishes.
O Dea certe: O, surely a goddess!  (Virgil, Aeneid)
vacuae sedes et inania arcana: empty seats and hollow mysteries.  According to Henry, this is what a shallow person sees when she looks into her heart.
indocilis pauperiem pati: One who cannot learn to endure poverty.  (Horace)
pudet haec opprobria dicere nobis: It is shameful that they speak these reproaches of us.  (Ovid)
abi in pace: Depart in peace.
saevo laeta negotio: happy with her savage work  (Horace, said of the goddess Fortune)
quondam: An adverb in Latin meaning formerly, the English language has adopted it as an adjective meaning former, as in "A quondam student of mine wrote to me recently."
Beati pacifici: Blessed are the peacemakers.  (Jesus, via Jerome)
Benedicti benedicentes: Blessed are those who bless.
virtute sua: by his own strength
Reficimus rates quassas: We refit our battered ships, i.e., we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.  (Horace)
matre pulchra filia pulchrior: The mother is beautiful, the daughter even more so.
imo pectore: from the bottom of my heart
mori pro patria: to die for one's country; from Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: Sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country.  (Horace)
reddas incolumem precor: Deliver him unharmed, I pray.  (Horace)
Gades aditure mecum? Will you visit Gades with me?  (Horace)  I don't know where Gades is or why I should want to ask someone to go there with me.  But the quotation provides a classical way of asking, "Would you go even to the ends of the earth with me?"
non omnis moriar: I shall not wholly die.  (Horace)
bar sinister: Only the second half of this phrase from heraldry is Latin.  The first word is the familiar English word; the second word means left.  (Sorry, lefties, you've had an unjustly bad reputation ever since ancient times.)  On a coat of arms, a solid bar running from lower left to upper right indicates a bastard son.  I had no idea; I'll be paying closer attention to coats of arms now.
vana somnia: false dreams
desipere in loco: part of Dulce est desipere in loco (Horace): Sweet it is to play the fool in the right place.
remedium amoris: remedy for love (Ovid)
aliquo mero: with some wine.  Henry and Addison are in an inn dining, and when Addison asks him to describe a battle he was in, Henry dips his finger in the wine and starts tracing a map on the table.  When another guest arrives, Addison explains that Henry is drawing aliquo mero.  The o's at the ends of the words in this instance indicate the ablative case, expressing what English does often by means of the words with or by.  So if you find someone drawing on the table with his drink, you can say he is drawing aliquo mero, but if you want to put a classical twist on the offer of a drink, you can ask a friend if he would like aliquid merum.
si parva licet: part of Si parva licet componere magnis (Virgil): if we may compare small things with great
hac ibat Simois, hic est Sigeia tellus: Here flowed the Simois, Here is the Sigeian field.  (Ovid)  In looking over and explaining the map drawn with wine, Addison (or Henry, I forget which) tosses in these phrases from Ovid.  Shakespeare quotes the same Latin passage in The Taming of the Shrew in a scene apparently depicting a Latin lesson, suggesting that the passage formed a standard part of the Latin curriculum in Christian Europe.
aliquo proelia mixta mero: embroiled battles with some wine; a further development of the phrase spoken earlier
alma mater: Literally, nurturing mother; the phrase is used, of course, to refer to one's college.
magnum opus: great work, masterpiece
afflavit Deus, et dissipati sunt: God blew and they were scattered.  The English coined this phrase and used it to refer to the destruction of the Spanish Armada in a great storm.  A modern country making headlines for current events in Latin!  Imagine if Kennedy had told us to ask what we could do pro patria or if Neil Armstrong, when landing on the moon, had said, "Aquila consedit."
meminisse juvat: it is pleasing to have remembered
requiescat: may he rest.  The book uses only this one word, but it recalls the entire phrase requiescat in pace.  Curiously, both the original phrase and the common English translation, "Rest in peace," can be abbreviated on a small tombstone with the same three letters.
quidnunc: Literally "What now?" in Latin, the word is used in English for a busybody, one who goes around picking up gossip.
rus in urbe: countryside in the city, said of a park
Mutato nomine de te Fabula narratur: The name changed, this tale is told of thee.  (Horace)  Like Joe Friday, Horace changed the name when he told his story, but unlike Friday, he identified his subject as soon as he was finished.

There's your Latin lesson for the day.  Say "O certa Dea" to a beautiful woman.  Tell someone, "I love you imo pectore."  Say "Abi in pace" when someone leaves, and toss in a quidnunc and a quondam.  Before you know it, respect for Latin will rise again, and our country will be full of eloquent youth.  Ah, such vana somnia.  Yet dulce est desipere.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Could Thackeray Keep a Secret?

Henry Esmond is full of secrets.  For a time, Henry's tutor, a Catholic priest, convinces Henry to believe in the Church of Rome but tells him to keep his loyalty a secret.  This same tutor, a supporter of James II both before and after his dethronement, has a secret means of escape from Castlewood should the Whig revolutionaries come looking for him.  Years after using this escape, the old tutor meets Henry again on the continent, where he dresses like a German officer and keeps his identity once more a secret.  Henry's guardian, Lord Castlewood, runs secret plots to take down King William and restore the crown to James -- for a while, that is, until he decides he prefers stability and must now keep his new-found respect for William a secret from the rest of the family.  Neither Henry nor his readers know the identity of his parents for quite a while, and then his father is revealed long before his mother.  Once Henry finds out his true lineage, he determines to keep the knowledge to himself for the good of the rest of the family.  Henry even goes so far as to say that he believes nature keeps a man's character secret even from the man himself, until adversity tests him and brings out his character.  Secrets, in short, seem to form the central theme of the book.

Since secrets play such a pivotal role in Henry's life, and since Henry tells his own story, I can't help wondering if he keeps even more secrets from his reader.  Other narrators do, I believe.  I'm convinced, for instance, that Dr. Watson holds information back in his tales of Sherlock Holmes.  In his narrative style, Watson often implies responses to Holmes without providing the transcript; Watson might report Holmes as saying something like this: "Of course, we'll have to tell the police about this business.  Oh, you wouldn't want that, would you?  Well then, . . . ."  Clearly his nervous interlocutor has evinced or even spoken his dismay, even if we don't hear it verbatim.  Now in speaking to Watson, Holmes's speeches almost never include any lines such as "Oh, you think that remark unfair to you, do you, Doctor?"  But surely Watson occasionally winces at the detective's clever barbs.  Watson simply keeps his responses unreported, as he does so many others, but in these cases removes Holmes's rejoinders, as well, leaving no evidence of his own hurt feelings -- except to a sharp-witted sleuth like myself who makes something out of the dog not barking in the night.

So further reading may reveal more secrets in Henry Esmond or not, but I think there's room for speculation either way.  With a mediocre character, the reader can often imagine what he would do even in a situation not narrated in the book.  With a good character, on the other hand, the reader can guess what he would do but still has doubts, because good characters, like the humans they imitate, are full of surprises and secrets.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Thackeray the Historian

Thackeray's Henry Esmond really puzzled me at first.  It begins with a family history inexplicably told twice, but something else mystified me even more than that.  When Henry finally appears, his story is attractive enough: we first see him left alone in Castlewood Estate until the new Lord and Lady Castlewood arrive, who instantly prove to be welcoming and accepting.  But that happy tableau doesn't seize the attention the way Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp does when she throws a dictionary out the carriage window in her first scene.  Although I had only read one novel by Thackeray before, I thought I knew what to expect, and found myself surprised.

My surprise lasted a couple of days until I read a little about the book.  Set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Thackeray set out to write a novel not just about that period, but as if it had been written then.  It is written in the first person (sort of; Henry himself serves as narrator, but he usually refers to himself in a Dolesque third-person), so it makes sense that Henry should tell his story in a fashion like that of stories he has read.  But Thackeray put an unusual amount of effort into the project, doing copious research on the politics, literary style, celebrities, and news of the times, and even had the publisher print the book in an eighteenth-century font in order to make it look more like an authentic autobiography.

So then the pieces fell into place: the book's style surprised me because Thackeray set out deliberately to write a novel not in his usual style.  Like Tom Jones and Roderick Random, for instance, Henry has sexual dalliances (although Thackeray doesn't describe them in his Victorian times with the detail that Fielding used in his) that do not keep him from being the protagonist.  By contrast, such characters in nineteenth-century novels must be either secondary comic characters or pitiable brothers of more central characters or downright villains.  Also, Thackeray's descriptions of events and even of characters' passions have the objective tone of the Age of Enlightenment.  Of his caretakers, Henry says at one point,
My lord was exceeding gentle and kind.  Whenever he quitted the room, his wife's eyes followed him.  He behaved to her with a kind of mournful courtesy and kindness remarkable in one of his blunt ways and ordinary rough manner.  He called her by her Christian name often and fondly, was very soft and gentle with the children, especially with the boy, whom he did not love.
True to the analytical ways of the period, Thackeray's Henry simply sets about cataloguing Castlewood's characteristics, the way a Jane Austen girl might coolly list the features of a suitor.

Of course the story includes a beautiful face that drives Henry mad (another reading coincidence: see the posts from last month on Plato's Phaedrus): the face of Castlewood's lovely daughter, Beatrix.  Henry says, "A pair of bright eyes with a dozen glances suffice to subdue a man; to enslave him, and enflame him; to make him even forget," never referring to himself directly, but always confining this illness to the generic "a man."  When he finally describes Beatrix physically, he makes her stunning effect clear, but not by showing the reader how stunned he is.  Instead, he says that "she was a brown beauty; that is, her eyes, hair, and eyebrows and eyelashes were dark.," and tells us clinically that her "shape was perfect symmetry, health, decision, activity."  Many a twentieth-century author would no doubt locate the symmetry and the activity more precisely for us.

Along the way, Thackeray gives his reader a lot of English history.  Henry's story takes place in counterpoint with the Protectorate, the Restoration, tensions between Catholics and Anglicans and Dissenters, the Glorious Revolution, tensions between Tories and the first Whigs, Queen Anne's suitability to both parties, and Marlborough and the battle of Blenheim.  I've read about this history, and I've been to Blenheim Palace, where the Dukes of Marlborough (and their cousin Winston Churchill) have lived for several centuries, but I don't remember ever reading a novel set in this period.  So now that I know that the book is what it's supposed to be, and not what I expected it to be, it's been -- I'll not say "fun," as I might with a nineteenth-century novel -- but, appropriate to the time, enlightening.