Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Organized Summary

No, that title doesn't refer to my post for today but rather to St. Thomas Aquinas's 6200-page summary of Christian theology, the Summa Theologica. Sixty-two hundred pages. If you read one page a day, you would finish reading the Summa in seventeen years. If you read one page each minute (good luck!) without sleeping or any other breaks, it would take you over four days to read the book. It's five times as long as War and Peace, and yet Thomas calls it a summary and says in the preface that it's suitable for beginners.

It's going to take me about thirteen years to finish the whole thing, and I certainly couldn't understand anything in it at first. But Thomas's characterization of the work is defensible: any student of his era who was ready to tackle it would have studied the philosophy and theology necessary to make it accessible, and a person like me making his way through it over the course of many years never gets lost because of its tight organization.

The whole work is divided into four (slightly awkwardly numbered) parts and each part into a few large treatises: the Treatise on God, the Treatise on the Trinity, the Treatise on Man, the Treatise on Grace, and so on. Each treatise is divided into "questions," each of which covers one subtopic. The Treatise on God, for instance, includes questions on the perfection of God, the goodness of God, the eternity of God, the will of God, the justice and and mercy of God, etc. Then each of these questions is divided into several (usually four to six) "articles." Each article asks a question, gives reasons for answering it one way (which will prove to be the wrong way), then cites a short reason for the opposite answer, followed by the heart of the article outlining what Thomas hopes is a sufficient justification for the second answer, and finishes with short rebuttals to the first, incorrect attempts to answer the question.

Today's reading included an article asking if habits sometimes come directly from God. At first, Thomas says, it seems the answer is no. God gave humans natural means of developing good habits; why should He bypass the system He created? Thomas counters this preliminary answer first with a passage from Ecclesiasticus saying that God filled someone with wisdom and understanding, showing that God sometimes doesn't wait for his children to learn things on their own. What follows is a brief, clear description of two situations in which it makes sense for God to bypass nature and simply implant a habit. The first regards human disposition in favor of God and ultimate happiness; such disposition lies beyond man's natural powers and must come by direct divine infusion, he points out. Second, God sometimes wishes to display his power miraculously, and so He might, for instance, heal someone without the help of a physician or give the Apostles knowledge of various languages without studying them. The article ends with pointed responses to the first arguments. Two days ago I learned what Thomas means by habit. Yesterday, I learned where in our bodies or souls various habits reside. Today I learned and have become convinced that habits come sometimes from nature, sometimes from human actions based in nature, and sometimes by direct divine intervention.

Bit by bit in this way, Thomas builds up his story. The message of the entire work goes something like this. God is perfect and self-sufficient. From his essence of love, though, He created a world that displays in its wondrous diversity countless aspects of his glory and wisdom. Everything other than God that exists came from God and must be directed back to God in order to fulfill its purpose. Man and some angels, however, engaged the will that sets them apart from the rest of creation and sought fulfillment elsewhere than in their Source. Man was created to know God and find perfect happiness in the vision of God's Blessed Face, but such knowledge is beyond man's intellectual capabilities, and redirecting his will to God is beyond the power of man's will. So God provides grace (partly explained in the article I read this morning) for restoration. The Blessed, who come to know God in this grace, live lives of faith, hope, and love, and in the end of time God resurrects their bodies, reconstitutes their uniquely human beings, and rewards them with eternal enjoyment of presence before his Face.

The organization of the book follows the history Thomas outlines. Just as a man starts from God, departs from God, and returns to God, so Thomas's theological summary first describes God ("describes" is not the right word, but with God, Whose essence is beyond our complete comprehension, it is impossible to find the right word), then man, and then the reunion of man with God. What plan could be simpler?

In the hands of a lesser intellect (which would mean almost anyone else you can imagine), a detailed philosophical examination of this theology would become hopelessly knotted somewhere around page 1100. But Thomas keeps every thread straight and in its place. When I read yesterday that habits are more than powers, I checked my notes from previous years and found in Part I, Question 87, Article 2 that I had written, "The human intellect does not know itself by habits (which are between powers and act)." I think Thomas must have had the whole picture clear in his head the entire time he wrote, just as the grown oak is encoded in the acorn, and then watched the organism grow and branch and blossom as he set it to paper.

I climb up this stately oak annually, each year reaching higher branches, and the view is almost overwhelmingly beautiful. Each yearly ascent gives me courage and inspiration to press on in life, praising God both for the blessings of creation and for his grace, and yearning for ever better views until I reach the ultimate vision: the reward of the vision of his Face and knowing Him as I am known.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Barbara Reynolds

In 2002, I attended the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute in Oxford and Cambridge, a two-week conference honoring arguably the most successful Oxbridge don and professor of the twentieth century with lectures by philosophers, physicists, and cultural critics, academic papers by professors from around the world, and artistic presentations of the highest caliber. My OU colleague Michael Scaperlanda went as well that year, so we spent a lot of time together over the two weeks. Sometime in the first few days in Oxford, we casually met a friendly, elderly lady named Barbara and kept up a superficial acquaintance with her that involved smiling and saying "hello" whenever we saw her in passing.

One day after the conference had moved to Cambridge, Barbara came around a corner, walked quickly up to the two of us, laid her fingers lightly on my chest, and asked, "Have you two thought what your legacy will be?" I see her now (as David Copperfield would say), looking around in an unfocused way as if made blind to the material reality around her by the sudden importance of her question. Her very short body is topped by gently waving white hair, and she is dressed tastefully although perhaps a bit absent-mindedly. Michael and I look at each other, struck dumb but amused by the adventure. Before either of us can get even something like "What do you mean?" to our lips, Barbara places the same fingers on her own chest, sighs, and says, "I think the only legacy worth leaving is love, don't you?" She suddenly returns to the material world and fixes us each in turn with her penetrating gaze. Michael and I quickly agree with her. How could we not?

I will admit that I thought at that moment that Barbara was probably a kindly Christian widow, a little dim and perhaps a bit daft (I admit it to my shame), who went to the conference because she had the money and didn't know what else to do with it. She probably didn't understand the lectures if she went to them and smiled at the art without engaging it.

The truth out-Boyled Susan Boyle. Intrigued by her question and her unexpected need to mull it over briefly with us, Michael and I started asking around about her. We first learned her full name: Barbara Reynolds. We heard that she had done a little acting. One of the conference organizers told us she had been Dorothy Sayers's secretary. Following the Dorothy Sayers lead with an online search, I discovered that Barbara Reynolds completed Sayers's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. I found one critic who said her completion improved on her mentor's work. So much for smiling blandly at poetry without understanding it.

As it turns out, Barbara Reynolds is a world-class scholar. She was a lecturer in Italian at Cambridge, wrote a biography of Dante as well as two books about Dorothy Sayers, and edited a five-volume collection of Sayers's letters. She also translated Dante's Vita Nuova and -- the reason I'm writing about her today -- Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.

In her introduction to Orlando, which I've been reading the last couple of days, Reynolds previews highlights of the poem, explains special challenges the translator of this particular work faces, tells about Ariosto's life, points out political meanings behind certain themes in the epic, traces Ariosto's influence through several of the most prominent English poets from Shakespeare to Byron, and gives a brief history of previous English translations of OF. And of course she does it all in impeccable prose that regularly grounds itself in deep, rich scholarship. I love reading these long translators' and editors' introductions to classic masterpieces. I know I won't remember all the details and that I will mostly enjoy the story, the language, and (in this case) the references to history and Christian doctrine that I catch on my own, without help. But I will catch a few allusions more because of the introduction, and the whole reading experience will be imbued by the historical context I now have a beginner's understanding of.

Barbara is still alive as far as I know. She was born in 1914, so she is almost one hundred years old. In that long life, she has taught hundreds at one of the world's greatest universities, and entertained and informed thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- with her biographies and translations of some of the greatest poetry ever written. Very few people could boast of such accomplishments, and yet she told me one afternoon in Robinson College, Cambridge, that she wanted her legacy to be love. I have no doubt she's been working on that legacy for many years and has turned countless strangers into friends, as she did Michael Scaperlanda and me, with a pleasant smile and candid friendliness.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Coming Up for Air

My recent reading adventures have reminded me of an experience in swimming lessons long, long ago. We were in the deep diving pool, and the instructor kept tossing a hard rubber block into the water and telling one of us to dive down and retrieve it. I watched other boys bring up the block, so I could see it was a doable task. But when my turn came, I encountered some problems. I had probably never gone six feet under before, and I found out that becomes harder at about that depth to keep going father down. But I expelled some air as I had been taught, and I went farther. I certainly had never gone down ten feet before, and the painful pressure on my ears surprised me. But a little facial stretch and a quick second to build some courage brought new resolve, and I kept going. Then the last two feet almost stopped me. I reached for the block only to find it was farther away than it looked. Darned refraction! I also started wondering whether I had the air to make it back up from eleven feet, let alone twelve. And my ears hurt, very badly. But the other boys had done it, so I pushed out more air and gave one more kick and grabbed the rubber block.

No one told me how heavy it was! I relaxed and pointed my body upwards, but I went nowhere. I gave a kick and moved a bit, and then tried using my hands -- aggh, my one free hand -- and moved a bit faster. The pain moved from my ears to my lungs as I rose, and I began to have serious doubts that I would make it to the top. At some point, all thoughts and doubts disappeared, and my body just started doing what it had to do to survive. I could see the wavy surface above me but had no idea how far away it was. It looked like I had three more feet to go, then five, then two, then ten.

Then suddenly things were different. I heard the world again and quit going up. Without waiting for my mind to think it through, my mouth opened up and sucked in air as fast as possible. Instantly I knew what to do again, how to move, how to reach the side of the pool. I had the use of both hands again. Where was the rubber block? Did I drop it? Did the instructor take it? Was it just suddenly much lighter than it seemed twelve feet of water pressure ago? I don't know. I only know that I didn't have to go down again.

I struggled more with Hegel over the last two weeks than I thought I would, and the experience felt very much like that dive. It became harder and harder, and my mind started thinking that I might not be able to make it through another twenty pages without collapsing into idiocy. But at the beginning of the year, knowing I would probably have some difficulties with this dense philosophy, even if I didn't know their extent, I scheduled Aquinas after Hegel, because reading Aquinas often feels like breathing sweet, precious oxygen into burning lungs. He's just so orderly and sensible and so very much in love with God.

I remember distinctly a sensation of utter mystification the first time I tried reading a page of the Summa Theologica. I was in my twenties, and I hadn't read any Aristotle. Fifteen years later, with a grounding in "The Philosopher's" system, Aquinas's great work is not just easy to read but encouraging and inspiring. "Inspiration" by its roots refers to the intake of breath (whether one's own or God's), so the memory of the swimming lesson comes naturally. Last week I wasn't sure I could see the surface, but today the weight is gone and forgotten, and I'm breathing with joy.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Dialectical Bog

The Hegel readings got very tough this week. I tried to take notes and follow along, but many long passages made no sense at all to me. Most of the problem lies with me: I just don't have the background, the philosophical skills, or the time to read it until I understand it. Of course, some of the problem may be Hegel's: it could be that he doesn't ultimately make sense. My first impression of many sections is that I'm reading the work of a madman dancing incessantly in circles around the same dense tangle of words that have meaning (or seem to have meaning) only to him -- and that impression could be partly true. But many people understand Hegel better than I, so I know I've simply set myself a frustrating task beyond my capabilities.

But I find a few consolations here in my Hegelian Slough of Despond. First, learning nothing is learning something. That sentence actually sounds dangerously like Hegel, who posed that Being and Nothing are not contradictory but rather inseparably entwined: the one implies the other and in fact is the other. (If you can think of Nothing, then Nothing is the content of your thought, and since your mind is operating, the content of its thought must be something, or some Thing. Thus Nothing is a Thing: it has and is Being.) But I don't have a Hegelian meaning in mind. I mean that if I learn nothing of the content of Hegel's writing on a given day, I have at least learned that I can't understand him, in addition to learning what his writing style is like and what terms were important to him. I didn't know just how difficult this would be until a couple of weeks ago, so that's progress.

Second, suspecting that I might not enjoy every day of my experience with Hegel, I scheduled the book in two big sessions, with a few weeks in between. So I read (or tried to read) every day this last week knowing that on Friday I would get a break. Sometime in late May or early June I'll come back to the anthology refreshed and ready for some hard work again. And who knows? The next section of the reader might be easier; I understood a lot of what I read the first few days, after all.

Third, my trouble understanding Hegel drives me humbly to seek help. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provided a lot of clarification, as usual. (I highly recommend it!) Even this reliable reference, though, lost me in its section on Hegel's logic (the part of the Hegel anthology that has caused me all the trouble). But I also consulted Peter Singer's A Very Short Introduction to Hegel and found an explanation there that I could follow. In fact, he mostly touched on points that I had written in my notes, making me think that I had at least found the key phrases, even if I didn't understand them at first.

Fourth, I know that Hegel is not really waiting to be understood. Singer says that virtually no reputable philosopher in the world thinks Hegel succeeded in establishing a coherent, helpful, accurate system of the Way Things Are. The point in studying him is that many other influential people did think so: Marx and, indirectly, Hitler, for instance. So merely getting the key phrases will at least help me understand a bit better when I see Hegel's name invoked as I read about other figures in history.

But why not just read Singer's book about Hegel and be done with it? Partly because I want the chance to experience these things for myself; reading about the Grand Canyon is not the same as seeing it first-hand. I also want to read Hegel because ideas stick in my mind better when I read them in their original sources; that's been true for me with Aristotle, Euclid, Freud, Dostoevsky, and many other writers. But mostly I want to come back to Hegel and give him another try in a few weeks because that's what this whole project is about. I take this journey through literature ready to discover whatever I discover, even if my discovery involves only my own limitations.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sound and Sense in Wordsworth

In one of my favorite Chesterton essays, "Sound and Sense in Poetry," GKC analyzes a single phrase from Paradise Lost: "Like Tenerife or Atlas unremoved." He shows the equal importance of sound and sense by trying two experiments. First, the line is not as effective if another geographical location is substituted: "Like Beachy Head or Atlas unremoved." The sound of "Tenerife" clearly lends gravitas to the line. On the other hand, he shows that the sounds alone do not create the effect, by suggesting an experiment in which the reader thinks different connotations for certain words. When we read the line thinking about a mountain in the Atlantic and a giant who holds the earth on his shoulders, the line conveys the impression of unfathomable strength. When we read it thinking, on the other hand, of a bottle of Tenerife wine and a book of maps, the line suddenly indicates merely the mundane details of poor housekeeping.

My own skills with poetry are far inferior to Chesterton's, but I have been noticing some interesting contributions of sound to meaning in Wordsworth's The Prelude. For instance, in the words "where the pipe was heard / of Pan, Invisible God, thrilling the rocks / With tutelary music, from all harm / The fold protecting," surely the word "tutelary" was chosen for its sound's imitation of the tooting of Pan's pipe. In fact, we don't really need the word's meaning since the next phrase tells us Pan is protecting the sheep with his music. A few lines later, speaking of another shepherd's music, Wordsworth says, "At sunrise ye may hear / His flageolet to liquid notes of love / Attuned, or sprightly fife resounding far." After all those liquid l's in the middle, the words "sprightly fife" sound sprightly indeed.

Sometimes the effect involves rhythm. Immediately after the lines about the shepherd's music we read this: "Nook is there none, nor tract of that vast space / Where passage opens . . . ." Try reading those words and saying "vast space" as quickly as you say everything else. Impossible! The slow conglomeration of consonants in "vast space" paint a rhythmic picture of a vast space. Come to think of it, the sound of the word "nook" paints the image of a small space.

The examples go on and on. The words "strict time" must be said in strict time. The "brawling beds of unbridged streams" recall the onomatopoeic b's of the "babbling brook" without resorting to the cliche. The aspirant consonants in "through thick fog" give the impression of distant sounds heard through thick fog. The accumulating accented syllables at the end of the phrase "vulgar passions that beat in on all sides" suggest the sound of incessant beating ("Beat In on All Sides"). And doesn't the rhythm of the phrase "with one and yet one more last look" naturally slow down in imitation of the traveler reluctant to leave a beautiful place?

Reluctant to leave The Prelude, I enjoyed taking this one last look back and writing about the beauty of some of its music.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wordsworth and Revolution

A couple of weeks ago, in anticipation of reading some of Wordsworth's poetry, I read bits of William Ulmer's The Christian Wordsworth, 1798-1805. According to Ulmer, Wordsworth left the Anglican Church sometime in the 1790s, having lost faith in at least some orthodox tenets of Christianity, fairly quickly came back to some kind of faith and worshiped in the Unitarian church, and then late in life went back to the Anglican Church. This trajectory has much in common with Dickens's spiritual journey, and I learned that Wordsworth also shares with the novelist trouble with critics who don't want to believe that his works have Christian content; Ulmer defends the face-value interpretation of Wordsworth's references to Christ and to Christian faith against the critics who take them all as symbolic of something else. He quotes several letters of Coleridge in support of his view, including one that calls Wordsworth "half an atheist" (or some such words), explaining that the word "atheist" at the time could refer to a wide range of unorthodox positions, many of which are in fact theistic.

I didn't read the whole book by any means, so I may well have missed something, but now that I've read a good bit of the poetry, I'm a bit puzzled that Ulmer spent so much time on Coleridge's letters and not on Wordsworth's own The Prelude: An Autobiographical Poem. In the eleventh book of this long work, Wordsworth explains his spiritual and intellectual crisis as a response to the French Revolution. In earlier passages, Wordsworth tells of his years living in France, and of his compassion for the working and peasant classes who had no hope of freedom in that nation's aristocracy. When the Revolution started, Wordsworth rejoiced, secretly scorning his home country for opposing the revolution with their own troops. But the situation turned more dangerous, forcing Wordsworth to leave the country to protect his life, and then from the safety of England he witnessed the devastating news as Robespierre plunged France into a senseless red bath, insatiably executing people of all classes for any reason or no reason at all. According to Wordsworth, a movement founded on principles of reason and liberty that he had embraced with piety had turned clearly, horribly wrong. Nothing he thought he knew made sense any more. He sings of his disillusionment this way:
Share with me, Friend! the wish
That some dramatic tale, endued with shapes
Livelier, and flinging out less guarded words
Than suit the work we fashion, might set forth
What then I learned, or think I learned, of truth,
And the errors into which I fell, betrayed
By present objects, and by reasonings false
From their beginnings, inasmuch as drawn
Out of a heart that had been turned aside  
From Nature's way by outward accidents,
And which was thus confounded, more and more
Misguided, and misguiding. So I fared,
Dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds,
Like culprits to the bar; calling the mind,
Suspiciously, to establish in plain day
Her titles and her honours; now believing,
Now disbelieving; endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of obligation, what the rule and whence     
The sanction; till, demanding formal 'proof',
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair.
I've often wondered what side I would have taken during the American Revolution. From my twenty-first century perspective, it seems wrong. Although I admire many of the Patriots and thank God for the blessings of the country they founded, I can't bring myself to see taxes on paper and tea as justification for rebellion -- especially compared with the taxes we pay today. But in the fervor of the moment, with an ambiguous "liberty" being preached from most of the pulpits in every colony, would I have thought differently? Might I even have seen it my Christian duty to contribute to the cause of independence?

This week, I've been putting myself in Wordsworth's shoes and wondering what I would have made of the French Revolution. If I can at least entertain the possibility that I would have supported the American Revolution, it seems only more probable that I would have embraced the French Revolution's fight for people much more downtrodden than Sam Adams and his fellow Bostonians. Would I also have sickened as the frenzy of bloodletting proved the misplacement of my sympathies?

By the time he wrote The Prelude, Wordsworth's faith had clearly revived; at the very end of the poem, he tells us he has learned that man's earthly revolutions -- political or otherwise -- cannot achieve the beautiful repose of reason and faith that his mind was created for. Speaking to his friend, Coleridge, he says:
Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how;
Instruct them how the mind of man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this frame of things
(Which, 'mid all revolution in the hopes
And fears of men, doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of quality and fabric more divine.

Friday, March 18, 2011


A moment I have not awaited eagerly has come: the time to blog about Hegel. I've been at it a few days, and so far I understand about a third of what I read and like even less. So what do I say? I know I have a degree with Philosophiae in the title, but I'm not a professional philosopher, so how do I critique this? The moment calls for courage -- courage to admit my limitations and courage to share my tentative responses.

Hegel was an enormously influential philosopher, even -- or especially -- among nineteenth-century music theorists. He comes up in a lot that I read, so I've wanted to tackle him for a long time. The Britannica set comes with a Hegel volume, and I duly read my assignment as I was going through the set's reading schedule. But the reading in that first plan came from the Philosophy of History, and based on what I had read about him in other sources, it seemed that I hadn't reached the core ideas. Not that I didn't learn some things: Hegel's idea that the invasions of Rome by Germanic barbarians started civilization rather than quenching it for a while does a lot to explain the sense of national superiority that led Germany to such troubling visions of domination between 1870 and 1945. But I knew I needed to read more, especially the Phenomenology of Spirit.

In putting together my current Ten-Year Plan, I decided on a reader published by Blackwell that contains a lot of the Phenomenology and excerpts from several other works as well. It's a long book: 530 fairly large pages filled with Hegel's dense prose, and I made a plan to read it all. But how? I have to go into it knowing that I'm not going to understand it. That admission, far from making the task more daunting, actually frees me to go at a pace that will get me through the anthology in some timely fashion; in this case, I decided on twenty pages a day, using a triage approach. If something makes sense, I just mark it: it's probably a main point. If something doesn't make sense, I glance over it quickly and try not to worry about it. If something almost makes sense, I might try to read it a second time. But the point is to get through the book so I can get a basic idea of Hegel's main thoughts from Hegel's own words (or at least translations of Hegel's own words), so I try not to go back over very much.

Here's a summary of what I have so far: Common experience tells us that we are surrounded by things, and, even if our senses can be doubted (Is that straw really bent as it enters the water? Is my red the same as your red? etc.), we feel that at least we know that the things we sense exist absolutely, and that we know them without mediation. But, says Hegel, if we examine the perceptive process, we find two objects: an 'I' and a 'this'. We only sense 'this' through the 'I' that sees it, and we only sense 'I' because it has experiences of 'this' (and, supposedly, 'that'). So everything we sense, he says, we sense through something else and not immediately. If we are truly to have immediate knowledge, we have to give up the distinction of subject and object, give up on the 'I' (why do so many philosophers want to deny the individual human soul?!), give up on the absolute existence of things, and realize that everything is a part of pure thought examining itself. The history of the world is the development of pure thought learning this lesson.

I'll be honest and say it sounds a little crazy, although I know I'm not truly qualified to judge. I think it's safe to say, though, that it would be easier to judge if it were easier to read. After writing the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel said he felt the urge to become accessible to a wider audience. But the editor of my anthology says that the resulting book, the Science of Logic, puzzles even philosophers. I note in this section of the reader that Hegel made additions, and additions to the additions, indicating that he thought that even the published corrections of the published original didn't say everything it should. Now, I know that many intelligent, trained people have found Hegel's ideas helpful, but I tell my students (and had teachers tell me) that if the prose isn't clear, it's probably because the ideas aren't clear in the writer's mind.

Well, that took a lot of nerve to say. Hegel could be completely comprehensible to the best experts and yet totally opaque to the layman, like some music theory. But the other day I read Hegel's explanation of why philosophy is so hard to understand, and his explanation made me think the blame should not rest wholly on my ignorance. He says philosophy makes claims about specific things, while language can only talk about universals; so philosophy always says the opposite of what it means, and that's why it's so hard to read. Can that really be the reason Hegel's work is so hard to get through? Some philosophy, after all, is easy to read (Plato comes quickly to mind). Also, by his argument all language should be equally difficult to understand, so his theory doesn't explain why philosophy -- and his in particular -- is especially difficult. OK, it's courage or nerve or foolish recklessness or whatever you want to call it, but I think that in this passage, Hegel might only have been trying to justify his lack of effective self-editing.

But he's one of the most influential philosophers of the last two-hundred years, and I want to keep reading, so I'll just continue to apply my triage procedure based on how well I understand a passage, and that way I'll do a little of my own editing.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wandering with Wordsworth

A week ago, I couldn't have said I was really familiar with Wordsworth's poetry, but I could have given someone a standard blurb on Wordsworth at the level of the introduction to an encyclopedia article or the introduction in a survey class on English literature: (1) With Coleridge he published Lyrical Ballads, a book of poetry that essentially founded the Romantic movement in literature in the last years of the eighteenth century. (2) He said that poetry should come from the remembrance of great feelings at a later time of tranquility (or something to that effect -- I'm never good at remembering exact words). (3) And, in poems like "Nutting," he recommended drawing inspiration and peace from the contemplation of nature.

So, as I said in my last post, with only this scanty knowledge of the poet, I was surprised to come across his early sensational poems about ruined families and wayfarers traveling the world trying to find release from the guilt of their horrific sins. I never heard about this side of Wordsworth in literature-survey courses. My anthology's editor suggested that the real Wordsworth would show up in 1797, but in the last couple of days, reading further in my chronologically arranged anthology, I've reached the more famous poems like "Tintern Abbey," and Wordswirth still intersperses the nature poetry with shocking tales about guilt-ridden wanderers, like Peter Bell, who married twelve women on twelve whims and thinks nothing of beating a donkey fiercely just because he (Peter) has lost his way in the woods.

But while the two kinds of poem seem very different in tone -- some glowing with tranquility and others stained red with lurid crimes -- I notice they both usually deal with wanderers, especially people wandering in the woods. So now I'm wondering, when Wordsworth wanders to Tintern Abbey and sits under a tree quietly looking at the placid ruins, what hidden terrors of the heart is he trying to get away from? When he wanders through the woods with a basket in "Nutting," is he really just seeking nuts, or is he seeking absolution? Peter Bell, in a twist that surprised me this morning, thinks he is only seeking an easy way home but finds Jesus. Walking by a Methodist church, he hears the preacher exhorting the congregation to repent and receive God's forgiveness, and Peter knows he needs to do it. Then he looks at the donkey's back and, seeing the cross, feels that God is speaking to him directly. Might not Peter reflect Wordsworth's heart as much as the persona of "Tintern Abbey"? Perhaps both kinds of poem should be taught in school, since they complement each other so interestingly.

I, also, am wandering -- wandering through this poetry, curious about what I'll find. I notice that Wordsworth and his characters do not draw all their solace and divine lessons from scenes of nature. Peter learns from the leaves and from the water and from the cross on the donkey's back, but he also learns from the sermon of a Methodist preacher. And of course Wordsworth hopes that we will learn from his poetry. So human institutions and art also have their place in Wordsworth's Romantic view, right next to nature -- something else they didn't teach me in my literature courses. But then I'm only about one-fifth of the way through the book, and maybe I'll found out later that Wordsworth abandons the human interactions (and the shock lit) in order to concentrate on quiet encounters with the Divine in the wild.

But for me Wordsworthian epiphanies come through human artifacts as well as God's handiwork, so I hope both sources of inspiration remain. I read "Peter Bell" this morning as I wandered yet another way: walking around the town of Norwich, CT. Passing what looked like an abandoned church, I heard bells from the steeple playing "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." The melody became clear to me just as I read about Peter surveying the wondrous cross on the donkey's back, and I think I experienced something like the feelings Wordsworth so highly prized and wondered also that I had the experience not by a lake in the woods but on a concrete sidewalk next to a dusty, boarded-up building, while listening to music composed by a man. I think the purveyors of the music must not have felt anything like what I did, though, because they cut the recording off abruptly in the middle of a phrase. But then I've heard this kind of disregard for musical integrity before in church and am not surprised to find a lack of aesthetic sensibility in someone who uses recordings for church music.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Marriages in David Copperfield and Early Wordsworth

Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis once wrote a motet for forty voices: forty separate melodies all blended into a single polyphonic texture. If every theme in David Copperfield's thick texture were a melody, Dickens could claim to have come close to Tallis's achievement. I wrote recently about the theme of memory, and again about the theme of pet names. But I could have written about realism and stylization in the arts or living with loss; both themes come up many times in the novel. If I were teaching the book to a high school class (which I would love to do), I could let each student pick a theme randomly and write a little essay on the variations that theme undergoes. One student could write about first impressions and snap judgments, a second could write about obsessions, a third about finding a job, and so on. One student would get to write about penmanship and styles of writing -- from shorthand to legal script.

The first time I read David Copperfield, the theme that jumped out at me was marriage, partly because I had just been married and partly because it is one of the main themes of the book. Many weddings take place in the course of the novel; some main characters (I hate to give anything away) even go through two. Almost all the characters who don't get married during the course of the story are either wed or widowed. Dickens shows us marriages that bring joy and marriages that bring sorrow, marriages long waited for and marriages rushed into, marriages that last for decades and marriages cut short, marriages that bring one spouse's family members into the new household and marriages that alienate a spouse from parents. Even characters who occupy less than a page tell us something about marriage; one of the most poignant examples comes from a wandering alcoholic and his faithful wife, who stands behind her husband and instructs David with silently moving lips not to give her husband money.

One of the happiest marriages comes about after a written proposal of three slightly cryptic words: "Barkis is willin'." The worst marriage in the story, that of David's mother and the ominously named Mr. Murdstone, results from a deceptively romantic period of courting. The ill-starred marriage of the constantly indebted Micawbers lasts because Mrs. Micawber, as she so often must explain, refuses to leave her husband; every devoted word she speaks seems to the reader like either self-delusion or a thin front for secret shame, yet by the end of the book, her confidence in her husband proves to be the practical patient understanding of a woman who knows something about her man that no one else sees.

Through it all, Dickens gives his readers some valuable lessons on marriage (lessons learned rather too late by the author, it seems, based on the story of his life). According to an oft-repeated line in the book, a good marriage requires compatible minds and a disciplined heart. It does not require compatible ages; while Dr. Strong and his pretty young wife have a rough go of it for a while, Mr. Dick (the only one wise enough to realize that he's the only one simple enough to pull it off!) gets them back on the smooth path. A happy marriage requires sufficient funding; Dickens makes that abundantly clear. But the most important factor lending to happiness in marriage is that both spouses be good people.

I'm sure Aristotle would agree. As he reminds us in the Politics, goods fall into three classes: goods of the soul (i.e., knowledge and virtue), goods of the body (health, strength, skill and so on), and external goods (money, good friends, luck, etc.). A happy life requires some of all three, yet the most important are the goods of the soul. After all, he analogizes, an expert performance on the harp requires a good instrument, but we credit the good performance to the musician, not to the harp.

I started my Wordsworth anthology a couple of days ago, and curiously, his early poems also make frequent references to problematic marriages. But the problems he relates are worse than lack of cash or disparity of age. No, I've been reading about men who beat their wives and women who kill their children. Heavens! The editor of the anthology says Wordsworth miraculously became a good poet around 1797. I'm ready for a miracle.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Government of the Best, by the Best, and for the Best

Wednesday afternoon I attended a faculty meeting at which both the Director and the Dean spoke. On a completely unrelated note, I've been reading in Aristotle recently about mistakes tyrants make.

Aristotle has a lot to say in his Politics. He offers definitions of various forms of government, outlines the theory of the ideal state, explores conditions under which less-than-ideal governments work better than the ideal, rehearses historical examples of governments that worked and governments that fell violently, and gives practical advice for the maintenance of all forms of government -- even the forms of which he disapproves.

People establish a state, he says, to provide a good life for the people. A well-functioning state provides justice and protection for all, coin and a regulated market for distribution of necessities to all and for increase of wealth, laws and judges to maintain order, and so on. But not all governments are good. "Governments," he says, "which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict rules of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic, whereas a state is a community of freemen."

Aristotle outlines three main kinds of government and names both the good form and the perverted form of each, for a total of six types of government. Rule by one person, provided that one virtuously serves all the people, is called a monarchy; the perverted form, in which the ruler serves only himself, is called a tyranny. Rule by a few, if those few are virtuous, is called aristocracy; if the few merely seek to maintain the power of their wealth over others, their rule is called oligarchy. Good rule by many is called constitutional rule when it listens to and serves all the people, but democracy when it rules by the tyranny of the poor majority over the wealthy minority.

In a helpful aside, Aristotle says that an individual's mind should rule over his passions with monarchical rule and over his body with constitutional rule. The lesson teaches about both politics and personal ethics. Thinking about the virtuous person I wish I were, I imagine that while I should never let my passions dictate, I should sometimes (but not always) listen to my body as the best source of knowledge for what it needs. This picture helps me see the virtuous monarch that Aristotle has in mind: he makes all the decisions, but the excellence of his character gives him the knowledge and the desire to give the people what they need. A constitutional body of rulers, on the other hand, makes decisions sometimes based on its own experience and judgment and sometimes based on the voice of the people.

I am amazed on rereading this treatise that Madison and his friends didn't cite Aristotle along with Locke and Hobbes as inspiration for our United States Constitution. Aristotle thinks his constitutional rule is generally the best form for several reasons: because many minds are better than one or a few at finding the right path, because this form of government serves all classes, and because it tends to last longer since all classes are happy with its use of several methods for decision making. These features serve as some of the foundational ideals of our government, with its mixture of representation and direct vote and its promises of opportunity for everyone. Aristotle even divides the offices of government into legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. But the Enlightenment times had no great respect for authority, especially the authority of teachers from the distant past.

All of Aristotle's basic model seems smart and interesting to me. But I can't agree with his view of laborers. When he says some are born naturally to labor and some to lead, I don't necessarily balk. (By the way, his "natural" division has nothing to do with family or nationality, so racial slavery and racial politics is completely irrational according to Aristotle.) I know people I would choose first to work on my car and people I would choose first to run my government, and no one is in both groups. But that doesn't mean someone couldn't be in both. Aristotle says that in the ideal state, mechanics and farmers lead an ignoble life of labor that is inimical to virtue because it leaves no time for education, and that idea shakes every nerve in my system. Our first ancestors were husbandmen, and while they had a problem with self-control that has proven somewhat of a burden to their descendants, their occupation was nonetheless noble. Our first three Presidents (two of which I admire greatly) were farmers. And while virtue requires education, that education doesn't have to be formal and can be acquired by farmers and manual laborers. Doesn't the life of our sixteenth President prove that the good laborer may educate himself and prove himself virtuous under the severest of trials?

So what about those tyrants? Aristotle says that if they want to play the tough-guy game, they have to be ruthlessly consistent about it. Much better, he says, is to pretend to be interested in the people: tell them they are valuable, keep your contempt for the law secret and make a display of following it, never take away honors suddenly or in public, provide entertainments, etc. Of course the people generally know what kind of hand clenches inside this velvet glove, and, as Aristotle tells us comfortingly, history shows that tyrannies are generally short-lived.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Coming to a Conclusion

In How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer claims that philosophy classes covering Hume's Treatise of Human Nature almost always ignore the last part, which Hume calls the Conclusion to the book. That thought stuck with me, and twelve or so years after reading Schaeffer's review of western philosophy and art, I took a philosophy class covering Hume (and others), and sure enough, we read most of the book except for the Conclusion. And yet, "conclusion" doesn't just mean "last bit": it can also mean "the final idea that all my thinking leads to." Why should a philosophy class leave out a philosopher's final thought?

Hume starts with the empiricist's premise: that all we know comes through the senses. His predecessors taught that, given that premise, we had reason to doubt everything we know since our senses can't be trusted. All that I really know about objects or other people is but the image in my mind, they say, and I have no way to know if that image corresponds to reality. Hume, pursuing this path, went even farther and said that I can't even know if I exist, since I only know of myself through sensory experience. What I think I know -- no, that formulation of the sentence doesn't work, because it assumes I exist. Let's try this: The apparent thoughts that suggest the existence of myself only exist in the mind -- although I don't know if it's my mind or our mind or The Mind or what.

Now in David Copperfield, Dickens might appear at first to be saying something like what Hume says. We find that people interact more with vivid memories or vivid images of the future than they do with the present. (The exception is shown by David and Dora, who, at the moment of their engagement, think only of the present. But then they are described as being "mad" with love, so they can't be taken as models of human thinking!) David's beloved nurse, Peggotty, has a sewing kit with a picture of St. Paul's on the lid, but she is disappointed with the "real" St. Paul's when she sees it because it doesn't live up to the superior image she has in her mind. In a hundred-and-one examples like these, Dickens presents characters whose mental images of objects are more real to them than reality.

The unusual use of names in the book could be seen as an example that applies not to objects but to people. Many a character in this novel has a special name for another character that only he uses. For instance, Aunt Betsey -- and only Aunt Betsey -- calls David "Trot." Steerforth calls him "Daisy," Dora calls him "Doady," and Ham calls him "Mas'r Davy Bor." Betsey definitely calls him Trot because, for her, the name stands for the ideal child, and she usually sees David as this ideal child (or at least a very close substitute for the ideal child -- a girl -- that David didn't turn out to be); she does not generally see him as a real, flawed boy. Steerforth explains that he calls David "Daisy" because he sees him as fresh and innocent, whether David actually is fresh as a daisy or not. So with all these pet names representing all these mental images, is there such a person as David Copperfield in the world of the novel? Or is that name only a convenient symbol for the collection of all the images that all the other characters have in their minds?

In Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self, Lawrence Frank, my colleague at the University of Oklahoma, says that the answer to the last question is "yes." Dickens, he says, shows us in his novels that there is no self, no human soul, and that people are only imaginations. An object with a human name has a string of experiences, but there's nothing to suggest that the object that, for instance, is now looking at this computer screen is the same object that ate that turkey sandwich last November. I never expected a Dickens fan to espouse such a philosophy, let alone ascribe it to the Great Author, so I had to read Frank's first chapter several times before I could understand that this was, in fact, his meaning. If he's right, I wondered, who was this "Charles Dickens" who supposedly said all these things? Who was "Larry Frank" who wrote the book and got tenure for it? Who was this "I" that read it and got confused by it?

Well, at the very least, I can respond that the Dickens that lives in my head never said any such thing. (And you can rest assured that the Ken Stephenson that lives in your head doesn't think Dickens said it.) To say that human beings are mysteries is a long way from saying there are no humans to be mystified. And to accept that reality challenges the limitations of the human mind doesn't mean there is no reality, just as our difficulty grabbing on to the greased pig doesn't mean there is no pig. But let's say that a person's very personhood does reside only in the mind. Well, then, a Mind of greater power than ours, the Mind that imagined us and created us, knows who we are better than we know ourselves and preserves the integrity of our souls. And God, too, will one day give to each of his children a white stone engraved with a special name that only He will use.

Hume didn't ultimately buy it, either. Here's an excerpt from his Conclusion (I'm glad Francis Schaeffer told me to keep my eye out for it):
The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
I, too, find that after playing a game (or after reading a few pages of Dickens) all pessimistic philosophies appear cold, strained, and ridiculous.

Hume's oft-suppressed Conclusion, by the way, is not included in the purportedly complete copy online at this site from the University of Idaho. [Note from 2016: the link from the U of Idaho philosophy professor seems to have been taken down.] It is included, though, on the Project Gutenberg copy.