Monday, August 29, 2011

The Fifth Day, Part Two

I'm really happy about the reading I've finished so far this year -- even the books I didn't enjoy so much. I'm glad I read Spengler's Decline of the West. I'm glad I read Thackeray's Henry Esmond. I'm glad I read Blackmore's Lorna Doone. Each of these books surprised and disappointed me, and each became a chore after the first few days. But I look back at the experiences with satisfaction. I also struggled my way through about twenty-five days of Hegel this year. Hegel did not surprise me; I knew what I was in for. I knew it would be rough going, but I learned what I wanted to learn. And then there's Aristotle and Aquinas and Euclid. I take careful notes on every philosophical chapter, every theological question, every geometrical theorem, and it takes a long time to get through a page. But these guys always serve up huge rewards for the effort I put into them. When I also consider that I reread the Odyssey and David Copperfield (two of my favorite books) and discovered the beauties of the Shahnameh and Orlando Furioso, I have to say it's been an extremely enjoyable eight months of reading.

But it's been eight months of work, and now the work is over. I schedule each year this way and knew that this time was coming: the dessert that follows the meal, the coasting descent that follows the driven climb, the "Saturday in the Park" that follows the "Takin' Care Of Business." I've danced to this annual rhythm for five years now, and it works beautifully. Just as the school year gets busy and more stressful, my reading gets easier. As much as I've learned and as happy as I am with what I've accomplished from January to August, the rest of the year is filled with reading that I know will give me joy every day. I've been reading Plutarch most days at lunch for about three weeks now. I finished Boccaccio the other day and started on Bruce Catton yesterday. It's been so stimulating, I have too much to say; I've been working on four blog posts at the same time for the last three days.

I commented on four stories from Boccaccio in an earlier post, so now I'll just pick up where I left off. The fifth story of the fifth day of Boccaccio's Decameron, like some of the first four, involves two men fighting over a girl. When one of the combatants discovers, though, that she's his long lost sister, the fighting ends and his former opponent marries her. Of course the news about being siblings immediately stops the actual sword fight; what seems so strange to me is that all animosity of any kind disappears so thoroughly. Everyone's happy with everyone in the end. The girl is happy to see two men fight over her, then to find her brother, and then to get married. The brother is happy to be reunited with his sister. The groom is happy to get a bride and a new brother-in-law. The absence of emotional residue from the duel suggests to me that the two men weren't very emotionally invested in the battle to begin with. Apparently they treated bloodshed casually as a routine part of business, like a bid or a budget.

This calm acceptance of death probably came naturally to a culture surrounded by the dying and the dead. The hundred tales of the Decameron, after all, are told by ten people who have quarantined themselves to hide from the plague. Maybe a trial by battle or a criminal execution just seemed to the typical fourteenth-century European like adding a little extra humiliation to a painful event that would have happened soon anyway. Actually, execution is probably a lot less painful than death by the plague, so they may even have thought of it as a kind of mercy killing. In any case, this acceptance of violent death continues in the next two stories from day 5, each about a father who catches his teenaged daughter in bed with her boyfriend and -- as judge, jury, and executioner -- decides to kill one or both of the lovers. (I feel a special ache when I read about parents like this.) Interestingly, though, someone in each story finds a way to convince the father to change his mind. Although the society as a whole (at least the society depicted in the stories) accepts the executions as normal and right, simple arguments can change the situation pretty quickly. And each of the listeners in the framework story accepts these reversals as happy endings. Maybe medieval people weren't all so hardhearted after all. (Of course, in our advanced civilization, we don't kill the teenagers anymore; but that doesn't mean we aren't hardhearted in this situation, and it certainly doesn't mean we don't still look for someone to kill.)

The eighth story adds a supernatural element. A man takes the woman who has cruelly spurned his attentions out to the woods to witness an uncanny phenomenon: every Friday afternoon the ghost of another rejected lover hunts down the spirit of the girl who spurned him and cuts her heart out. In Scrooge-like fashion, the living woman immediately sees the error of her ways. She offers her services to her suitor, but happily, the man tells her he will not accept her offer if it means dishonoring her. So the two get married and live happily ever after, presumably -- again like Scrooge -- with no further ghostly intercourse.

The ninth includes a foretaste of The Gift of the Magi, and in the tenth, homosexuals finally show up. Dioneo, the storyteller of the tenth tale, instructs both his listeners and the reader how to receive all these stories. Treat them like roses with thorns, he says (supposedly meaning to approach the stories with both delight and caution). Leave the wicked to their misfortune, laugh at the deceptions, and feel sorry for the misfortunes of other characters. I hope I've followed the formula correctly. I know I've laughed.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gilligan's Island vs. The X-Files

Two of my favorite television shows -- and I'm a Baby Boomer, so that means two of my favorite things -- are Gilligan's Island and The X-Files. I always emulated Gilligan's Professor; he was the actual leader on the island, and he made being smart look great. But he had a problem: he often confused science with closed-mindedness. In episode 3, for instance, when Gilligan claims to have been attacked by a monster in the supply hut, the Skipper assumes there's voodoo afoot, but the Professor will have none of it. "All this talk about voodoo and witchcraft is ridiculous," he tells Gilligan. "Whatever you saw last night, there is a simple, logical explanation for it." Now what's illogical about voodoo and witchcraft as explanations? Proving the universal negative is the most difficult of arguments, and science has done nothing like prove that voodoo and witchcraft don't exist. The Professor could more accurately have said that there's a much more likely explanation for it, or he could have proposed his preference for a natural explanation. But if voodoo exists -- and again, there's no proof that it doesn't -- then there's nothing illogical about claiming that its effects also exist.

One of the many reasons I love The X-Files is that it corrects this common mistake. Over the course of the first few seasons, Scully slowly changes from skeptic to believer, and while she consistently demands that Mulder accept a "scientific explanation" for the strange goings-on that they investigate, that phrase changes over the years from meaning "explanation that doesn't involve anything that Mulder believes in and Scully doesn't" to "explanation that can be verified and measured." If Scully sees a little gray man running around an abandoned government warehouse, maybe what she sees is really there, and maybe it isn't. If it's really there, maybe it's an alien, and maybe it isn't. If it's an alien, maybe it has DNA, and maybe it doesn't. But if it's really there and it's really an alien and it really has DNA, then that DNA can be analyzed and compared with human DNA and the history of extraterrestrial genetic shenanigans can start to unfold.

Plutarch (OK, that's the last place you thought I'd go with this introduction) lived at a time that had no prejudice against supernatural explanations for phenomena. To someone like the Professor, that fact probably suggests that Plutarch always jumped immediately to the pre-scientific, supernatural, superstitious explanation for anything he didn't understand. But in my readings this year from his Parallel Lives, I've found Plutarch much more like a mature Scully-Mulder team, entertaining various theories for strange events and deferring judgment when he doesn't have enough evidence to decide one way or another.

In the story of Lucullus, Plutarch reports without criticism that the goddess Proserpine appeared to a town clerk to deliver a message of encouragement. But in the story of Cimon, when Plutarch writes about the repeated apparitions of the ghost of a man murdered in a public bath, he is careful to add the caveat "so our fathers have told us." He also says, "Even to this day those who live in the neighbourhood believe that they sometimes see spectres and hear alarming sounds," implying doubt about the accuracy of their beliefs. In his story of Lysander, Plutarch tells of a meteorite that fell on the Chersonese (the long western peninsula in the European portion of modern Turkey); he doesn't assign the event to the wrath of the gods as we might expect from an ancient writer, but passes on the explanation of Anaxagoras that the stars are like stones that sometimes become dislodged from "the circular motion by which they were originally withheld from falling." (If Anaxagoras could travel in time to our era, he might might draw some amusement from our belief that asteroids and centrifugal force are modern discoveries.)

Concerning the timing of one attack from the barbarians, Plutarch remains undecided. The timing is due, he says, to "whatever it be which interferes to prevent the enjoyment of prosperity ever becoming pure and sincere . . . , whether fortune or divine displeasure, or the necessity of the nature of things." Blind god, just god, no god. Yep. That pretty much covers the possibilities. He also hedges his bets on the explanation for the "extraordinary rains [that] pretty generally fall after great battles." Again, supernatural and natural each offer options. It could be, he says, that a god wants to wash the polluted earth, and it could be that heavy evaporation rising from the decaying bodies changes the air. (We should add that it could be that heavy rain doesn't follow great battles as often as Plutarch thought.) Even a given person's choice in a particular situation is open to divine influence in Plutarch's mind. Lucullus, he says may have decided not to blockade the retreating army of Mithridates (1) because he wanted his senior officer to have the chance to claim victory or (2) because he hated the general that sent him the intelligence or (3) because divine fortune simply decided that Mithridates had not met his time yet.

In the story of Caius Marius, Plutarch tells of a wonder without offering any explanation. For several nights, he says, people in the towns of Ameria and Tuder saw "flaming darts and shields" in the skies, now bobbing in place, now seeming to strike against each other, and finally disappearing to the west. In the spirit of Plutarch's open-mindedness, I want to explore some of the possibilities for this tale. First, it's conceivable that Plutarch lied and had never heard any reports about lights in the sky. Even if he faithfully handed down what he had heard, though, the reports he received may have been false. Then again, supposing the reports were true, the witnesses may have only imagined that they saw something. Moving on and supposing that they saw something actually present in the night sky, the objects could either have had natural sources or have been signs from a supernatural source. Finally, in the spirit of Fox Mulder's passion, supposing the lights came from natural, physical objects, the people of Ameria and Tuder might have seen maneuvers of extraterrestrial spaceships. (I'm sure the ufologists know of this passage in Plutarch.)

I don't rule any of these explanations out. I simply find some more likely than others. It seems more probable, for instance, that the original reporters lied than that Plutarch did, history giving us no reason to think Plutarch a liar and every reason to believe that less famous people often stretch the truth to gain notoriety. Supposing that the townfolk saw something real, it seems more probable that the objects were natural objects than supernatural, since my personal experience involves many more sightings of rocks than of ghosts. And supposing that what they saw was natural, it seems more probable that they misunderstood or exaggerated the movements of meteors or the aurora borealis than that they witnessed a battle between Martian factions.

It's hard for humans to stay unbiased. Mulder, of course, starts out just as prejudiced as the Professor in his own way; he always first assumes the explanation that the Professor (or the young Scully) would most readily dismiss. So I wouldn't call Mulder's passion for spacemen open-mindedness; Mulder's belief only goes so far. By the last scene of the very last episode of The X-Files, it's Scully who has taken the lead and begins to help Mulder change his slogan from "I want to believe" to "I believe."

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Fifth Day, Part One

Boccaccio's Decameron tells about a group of ten people who each tell a story every day for ten days -- one-hundred stories in all. The decision to spread this book out over the ten years of my reading plan has really paid off. Instead of trying to read it all at once and getting tired of it around story thirty-one, I look forward to coming back to it each year and enjoy every story. And it was easier to decide how to divide up this book over the decade than it was with any other book: read one day of stories per year.

Most of the stories I read the first four years are either bawdy tales of naughty monks and unfaithful wives or adventure yarns in which lovers face separation, pirates, slavery, and other torments of fortune only to reunite in the end . . . or die. The fifth day, this year's assignment, continues the pattern to a degree but deemphasizes these sensational elements in favor of psychological and moral dilemmas.

The first story contains several incidents in which men kill to "win" their respective ladies and then find the ladies duly impressed. Having grown up in the age of Gloria Steinem, the birth of the honorific "Ms.," and the critique of gender bias in our language, these passages challenge and puzzle me. Do I find it necessary, for instance, to put quotation marks of irony around "win" only because of the spirit of my age? Or am I responding to an absolute standard that says, "Thou shalt not treat a woman as an object to be won. Neither shalt thou call her a 'lady' "? Neither answer seems fully right. I certainly can't countenance the idea that killing should come so casually, although I don't object so much where the story involves killing a kidnapper. But I also wonder if the story accurately reflects feminine thinking at the time. Did all that knightly, chivalrous bloodshed really impress the women of the Middle Ages? Boccaccio was a man, and he puts this story in the mouth of one of the male characters in the framework tale, so I don't think we can take it at face value.

Aside from these posers, this story ended up one of my favorites from the fifth day mostly because of the development of the character of Cimone. He first dresses in an uncouth manner and talks like an idiot, shaming his father, until one day when he sees the beautiful, nubile Efigenia sleeping under a tree. Unlike so many characters in the first forty stories of the Decameron, Cimone does not attack Efigenia or begin to lust for her body. Instead he is transformed by the glimpse of Heaven he sees in her beautiful appearance. When she proves uncomfortable with him, he decides to leave town and go learn how to act like a gentleman. He starts to dress in a refined manner and to speak correctly, and then returns four years later to impress Efigenia (who if possible has grown only more lovely) not with homicide, but with civilization.

The second story involves a prisoner who, hearing that an enemy army is about to attack his captor, offers that captor some brilliant advice that wins him the battle. Just restring your archers' bows, he says, with fine cord, and refit your arrows with narrow notches. After each army fires off all its ammunition and the archers scramble to pick up arrows from the ground, you will be able to fire back your enemy's arrows, but he with his thicker strings will not be able to return the volley. The success of his plan gets the prisoner released, and the news of his involvement reaches the ears of his love, who finds him and marries him. All's well that ends well. Except for the knights who die from arrow wounds.

The third story calls Rome "the rump of the world as once it was its head," a reminder of the weakness that plagued the not-so-eternal city after showdowns with the emperor and the removal of the papal palace to Avignon. In the fourth, Boccaccio offers an unusual metaphor comparing a certain body part with a nightingale and astonishingly carries that metaphor through to the very end. And since I have more to say about the other six stories, I'll add "Part One" to the title of this post and comment more another day.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lurking Viciousness

For fourteen years during the nineties and the oaties, I helped grade the AP Music Theory exam. It was the best job I ever had -- after I got out of the FR7 room. On the question known as FR (for "Free response") 7, students are given a simple melody and asked to harmonize it in eighteenth-century style. A good number of students did quite well each year, but many others composed very strange music for their responses, harmonic combinations that often went beyond my ability to hear and that often did weird things to my mind, especially around siesta time in the hour before the afternoon break.

But some of the wrong answers became quite familiar. Every year the readers (in AP world, graders are called "readers") were amazed at how many times we saw the iii6-4 chord (pronounced "three six-four"). The major scale has seven different pitches: DO, RE, MI, FA, SO, LA, and TI. Each pitch can serve as the basis, or "root," of a chord, so we have seven chords: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii°. Each of these seven chords can theoretically find any one of its three pitches in the bass; because I know people want to know this, I'll tell you that the symbols for those bass positions are 5-3, 6-3, and 6-4. The least common of the seven chords is iii; a typical beginning music-theory class probably never encounters a single one all year. The least common bass position is 6-4; all theory classes teach that only the I, IV, and V chords ever use the position and only in certain restricted situations. So why is it that so many students feel compelled to include in their harmonizations not one but multiple instances of the iii6-4? Musicians invented the bass-position symbols only in the seventeenth century, the roman-numeral symbols for the chords not until the nineteenth century. Yet for all the ages of human existence before then, the uncontrollable pull of the iii6-4 chord lay dormant within human nature, waiting for the object of its desire to be invented and then proscribed just so it could sing its weirdly harmonized siren song and lure young music students to destruction, or at least to a lower score on FR7.

In his story of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a dictator of the Roman Republic and the leader of one of the factions in the terrible civil war that eventually brought on Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire, Plutarch mentions another kind of hidden temptation. Why do so many people of moderate temper become violent and ruthless upon achieving power, he asks? Is it a "real change and revolution in the mind," or is it a "lurking viciousness of nature" that reveals itself only in possessors of authority? If the first is the reason, the debasement depends partly on circumstances, and maybe some new leaders will escape by chance. If the second, then every person possesses the poison seed and plants it in dark soil the second he takes office.

This question is just one of many moral puzzles Plutarch investigates in his monumental collection of mini-biographies. In my reading this year, I've come across several more. For instance, in his story of Lysander, the Spartan general that ended the long Peloponnesian War, Plutarch says that ambitious leaders err in feeling jealousy for others of high reputation. They see these others, he says, as rivals in virtue when they should treat them as companions in a partnership that could make all the participants more virtuous; the wrong attitude just ends up hindering everybody from performing noble actions. I know a few college administrators who could benefit from pondering this pattern in interpersonal dynamics. (Thank goodness, Plutarch would never call human relationships "interpersonal dynamics.")

Earlier in the same story, Plutarch says that "moral habits, induced by public practices, are far quicker in making their way into men's private lives, than the failings and faults of individuals are in infecting the city at large." The evil whole, he says, easily corrupts its parts, whereas the the evil part meets resistance at every turn when trying to infect the healthy whole. I'm still pondering this one. Accepting the idea might suggest that we should attack institutional problems more readily than we rail at the misconduct of individuals. After all, no doubt "we" are the guardians of public morality. But then, how easy is it for a good part to influence a corrupt whole? Plutarch doesn't address that side of the issue here.

In his essay comparing Lysander and Sulla, Plutarch proposes a surprisingly republican theory about character: "As a vicious nature, though of an ancient stock, is dishonourable, it must be virtue itself, and not birth, that makes virtue honourable." He says this in defending and praising Lysander for changing the laws of Sparta to allow magistrates to come from more than just the leading families. Imagine how differently eighteenth-century Europe might have developed had the leaders of France and Great Britain thought through this little argument with Plutarch's clarity and then sincerely accepted its conclusion. Oh, but that's right, they were in power and suffering from a lurking viciousness of nature.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Four Germans and an Austrian . . . and an Englishman

Just after struggling so long with Spengler and having regretted including so many Germans in one year of my plan, I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall. I see great similarities in the styles of Kant, Hegel, Spengler, and Bonhoeffer. They're Germans, so they all want to be organized. But while their sometimes intricate tables of contents show a lot of organizational effort, their arguments often don't. Descartes thought of geometry as the most organized discipline, so he wrote some of his philosophical works like geometry books: he started with carefully explained axioms and built up his theorems bit by bit so the reader could (mostly) follow. But the Germans just jump into the middle of their ideas with special terminology and unexplained metaphors. Spengler, for instance, talks about the Baroque of the ancient world or about Faustian civilization as if they need no explanation. He doesn't explain until halfway through the book that the "West" of the title of his book doesn't mean what you probably think it means. Kant has his apodeictic judgments and his transcendental objects (which are different from transcendent objects), and Hegel has his reflections and negations. They often sound more like prophets than schoolteachers, receiving their mind-boggling visions from a greater Mind and then trying as hard as they can to describe the wheels within wheels.

Bonhoeffer fits right into this tradition of jumping into the middle of things. In fact, his first confusing metaphor is the very idea of the middle. Humans, he says, are in the middle. The Bible starts with a declaration of the beginning, which people in the middle can't understand and can't begin to know of without a revelation from God. Jesus is the Beginning and the End, and we are in the middle. It's pretty, and I think I learned something from the times Bonhoeffer used it. But is it a consistent metaphor? Does Jesus have a gap between beginning and end? Since we're in the middle, do we fill the gap in Jesus? (Pascal famously said the opposite.) Or are we in some other middle?

Bonhoeffer clearly gets this style from the Germans who preceded him, because he alludes to them frequently. Some of his allusions he makes explicit, some I recognized having read the other books, and some I discovered only by doing searches of some Latin phrases I didn't know. Bonhoeffer knows German philosophy and uses it often in this theological work, but he knows when to draw from it in a positive way and when to argue against it.

For instance, he says that the Day and Night created on (or themselves constituting) the first day represent the dialectic of creation, the constant ballet of existence and negation that all of creation dances. This dialectical idea is what Hegel is most famous for, and surely Bonhoeffer had Hegel in mind when he said this. Later he says that with the death of Christ on the cross "the nihil negativum broke its way into God's own being," another idea I just read in Hegel this past spring. But I notice that where Hegel says God's very essence involves the opposition of death and life, Bonhoeffer knows that God is Life alone and that death must "break its way" into God's being. In another place, he simply calls Hegel wrong for enthroning Reason in God's place. Bonhoeffer also explicitly contradicts Kant, who said that the only good thing possible is a good will, by pointing out that God declared his creation good.

I haven't read much Schopenhauer yet, but in looking up nihil negativum and its companion phrase nihil privativum, I found that they came from Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea. (The latter is a nothingness that exists as an absence of something positive, as darkness is the absence of light. The former is absolute nothingness.) Bonhoeffer alludes to Nietzsche by saying that, before eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam lived beyond good and evil. He makes an interesting allusion to Freud's theory of dreams when he says that the common human dream of trying to escape something is a manifestation of the subconscious knowledge of our fallen state. And he refers to the popularizer of evolution simply by saying that the creation of Adam has nothing to do with Darwin.

Bonhoeffer's nuanced references to these philosophers encourages me. Obviously he had studied these non-Christian (or at the very least less-than-orthodox) philosophers, finding them not only not detrimental to the thinking of a Christian but even helpful. And now I'll cite an African, St. Augustine, who, in his treatise On Christian Doctrine, declared that "All truth is God's truth." All correct, wise, or beautiful statements are possible only because of God, so what does it matter what human utters them? Augustine's approval of the use of pagan literature in the education of Christians secured the place of the classics in the medieval curriculum; in fact, it probably saved a lot of literature we enjoy today from the ravages of both time and puritans. And now I benefit today from the works of pagan philosophers (Aristotle, Nietzsche, etc.), from the Christians who approved their study, and from Christians -- like Bonhoeffer -- who demonstrated the rewards of knowing them.

Monday, August 15, 2011

When Should We Then Live?

One occasionally hears advice to "live in the now" or "in the moment." If people who give this advice mean that we should deal with what we have at the present, responsible with its problems and joyful in its blessings, neither disabled by regrets nor bedazzled by pipe dreams, then I agree. I just read today in Plutarch's summary of Caius Marius that thoughtless people "lose the enjoyment of their present prosperity by fancying something better to come," and that they "reject their present success" while they "do nothing but dream of future uncertainties." He's right: Caius Marius and others like him should not have neglected the now.

But if the people giving this advice mean, as I'm afraid most of them do these days, that we should ignore both the lessons of the past and the fears of future consequences, as if all lessons and consequences are mere conventional strictures designed to spoil us of our rightful joy, then I can't agree. I'm sorry to have to say so often that I remember reading something without remembering who said it, but I have to do it again. I remember reading somewhere that among the effects the Fall is the brokenness of time for humans, so that we have trouble seeing the connection between past, present, and future. Part of our Redemption then is seeing that Time is one -- that God has a plan for all of Time and that we play a part in it, that our Salvation came at the fulness of time, that the history recorded in the Bible teaches us in the present, and that all of creation rushes to a future that includes glory for the redeemed.

In his introduction to Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall, John W. deGruchy suggests that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would also agree with the need to see Time as one. As deGruchy points out, Bonhoeffer taught both that the Old Testament should be read in light of the New Testament, since the declarations of the Hebrew Bible were made possible only by the Word revealed in the New Testament, and that the New should be read in the light of the Old, since the New Testament only makes sense in the context of the history given in the Old. Failure to see the integrity of biblical history and of the biblical message leads to a separation of creation and redemption, a separation of public and private spheres of life, a Gnostic separation of matter and spirit, and -- especially in Bonhoeffer's world -- anti-Semitism.

In the text of the book itself, Bonhoeffer begins his exposition of the first three chapters of Genesis with a discussion of what "the beginning" means, and points out that the human who wrote that sentence could only know about the beginning by having been told about it by Someone Who was the Beginning. But such a person must also be the End. The Bible, Bonhoeffer says, "needs to be read and proclaimed wholly from the viewpoint of the end. In the church, therefore, the story of creation must be read in a way that begins with Christ and only then moves on toward him as its goal." Without revelation about our beginning, he says, humans don't know their end either and thus live on a circle, an isolated path with neither origin nor goal. Although we can see the middle, we can't see the beginning or the end, and yet we know that we are in the middle. Any proclamations about the beginning or end disturb us: they can only come from liars or from the Creator.

I love this opening to the book, partly because it reminds me of several other books I love -- books whose authors I do remember. It first makes me think of Pascal's statements in the Pensées about humanity living in the middle, unable to know either the very small or the very large. Pascal was both right and out of step with his times: made at a time when faith in reason was growing and when some philosophers were starting to say that we could one day understand all there is to know, his humble assertions have proven astonishingly accurate, as science has shown, for instance, that the location and vector of subatomic particles cannot be known simultaneously, and that our observation of the history of the material universe hits an impenetrable curtain at 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang. Of course that last point about disturbing proclamations reminds me of C. S. Lewis's famous "Lord, Liar, Lunatic" argument from Mere Christianity.

But most of all, this passage in Bonhoeffer reminds me of Scrooge, who got it right at the end of his story. With him, I say, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." May the Beginning and the End hold me to it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

She's a Funny Girl, that Belle

In the last few days several people have seen me reading while I walk and have said something about it. Most of the time people are asking: "How can you read and walk at the same time?" Sometimes The Question comes with a tone of pleasant curiosity, and sometimes with a hint of puzzlement or even judgment. But one woman about three days ago actually praised me for my ability. "I'm amazed at how you can read and walk at the same time," she said. "It's a gift."

Now I had never really thought of it as a gift exactly. I've often responded silently, "Can't you?" I know I've had to learn a bit. I remember a trip or two when I first started reading while walking, on the Baylor campus in the early '80s, and I remember one spectacular collision with a telephone pole while reading The Old Curiosity Shop for the first time. To avoid the tripping, I've had to develop a habit of picking up my feet slightly more than I usually do. I remember gym teachers yelling at me, "Pick up your feet, Stephenson!" So maybe that slippery bit of the curriculum finally caught traction. I hated hearing the coaches single me out over and over, and I don't like stumbling in public. But lifting my steps an extra inch or so also increases the aerobic effects of the walk, so it's not just a matter of escaping embarrassment. But again, I had to learn this habit; it didn't come naturally.

On the other hand, walking into the telephone pole was an oddity. Unlike some people (like my wife, Nancy), I don't get lost in books; I'm always aware of objects and events going on around me and distracted by stray thoughts from other plans, concerns of the day, or recent entertainments. Having done some research on two major occasions in the last few years, I've concluded that I have ADD. The diagnosis first made sense to me when I read that the syndrome has a misleading name. People with ADD don't suffer any lack of attention but rather a lack of focus; their minds have a tendency to pay attention to too many things. So I knew the first letter of the acronym was wrong (I guess FDD runs the risk of confusion with the network of florists). Now the comment that my ability is a gift has me wondering about the last letter: is what I have really a disorder? I know that the pharmaceutical companies have turned many a personality trait into a disorder after discovering a pill that diminishes it. Maybe I have AAG: Attention Abundance Gift.

Oddly enough, I hadn't thought before this week that my ability to walk and read simultaneously really is an unusual trait. But thinking about it a new way, I see now that I'm able to do it because I'm always aware of the curves and branches in the path, always aware of streets I have to cross and the traffic in them, aware of the geese and the ducks and the messes they leave on the pavement. And yet somehow my walking helps me pay more attention to the book. Maybe the routine focuses my peripheral attention so it becomes less distracting to the central activity.

My wife and daughter and I watched Disney's Beauty and the Beast the other night. It had never occurred to me before that Belle and I have so much in common. Thinking about those recent comments on my morning paths, I watched Belle walk around her village, reading yet constantly aware of everything that happens around her. She knows people whisper and call her "odd" behind her back. She knows which shops she's passing. And she knows to put her hand up to swing that sign just in time to keep the water from hitting her head. As much as I liked the beginning of the movie before, it seems even smarter now.

It took me two days to write this post. I'm sorry it's taken so long. I've had a lot on my mind.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Random Lessons from Plutarch

As usual, I've been enjoying Plutarch, reading in the pages of his Parallel Lives short biographies of memorable Greeks and Romans whose histories provide many moral examples -- sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Here are a few of the stories and observations I've read in the last few days in the lives of Pyrrhus and of Caius Marius.

Plutarch says that Pyrrhus's actions corroborated an observation by Homer to the effect that fortitude is the only virtue that appears in a frenzy. I agree that frenzies seem to preclude the presence or application of temperance, wisdom, and justice. And I agree that a person in a frenzy often does things he would normally be afraid to do. But I don't think the actions of a frenzied person should be credited to fortitude, which requires a rational understanding of the good purpose that outweighs the risks and makes those risks worth taking. I might be persuaded, though, to say that a frenzy can be prompted by love or wisdom, as when a mother becomes fierce in protection of her children or when a baseball manager decides that the time is right to argue with the ump and get thrown out of the game.

In his summary of Pyrrhus, Plutarch says that he showed courage that never wavered and military intelligence, but lost all that he ever gained because of "vain hopes" and "desires of what he had not." I can't help but take note of that sobering lesson, teaching us to keep from constantly casting our eyes to the ends of the earth. But it seems to me, the way Plutarch tells the story, that Pyrrhus didn't show such unconquerable courage, since he gave up almost every enterprise he entered on just as it got most difficult. Oh, sure, he was constantly getting requests from various nations asking him for help in overthrowing their oppressors, but he certainly seemed to take on these missions every time just as the previous liberation got messy. And I still can't shake the question that Cineas asked him: "If you're fighting all these fights in order to win a life of leisure, why not just stop fighting and live at ease now?" (More on that story in the previous post.) I think he just liked to fight.

Caius Marius seemed to have superhuman tolerance for pain and complete rational control over his passions. Plutarch tells of a surgical procedure that he endured without anasthesia. Having tumors in both legs, he asked a surgeon to remove them and lay still without a twitch while the lesions from one leg were removed. But when the surgeon moved to the other side, Marius stopped him and said, "I see the cure is not worth the pain." Cool, collected, cost-risk analysis.

In the Roman civil war that Julius Caesar's ascendancy put an end to, Marius took the side of the plebeians against the patricians and Sulla. He demonstrated his preference for the commoner early on, when against all custom he recruited commoners to his legions the first time he was elected consul. He won their loyalty by sharing in their labor, which "is felt as an easing of that labour, as it seems to take away the constraint and necessity of it." Plutarch goes on to say that the Roman soldiers "do not so much admire those that confer honours and riches upon them, as those that partake of the same labour and danger with themselves." I've tried to keep in mind such counterintuitive truths about power any time I've been given leadership; sometimes I've even succeeded in keeping them in mind. I wish university administrators understood the lessons. Maybe I should distribute a few copies of Plutarch around campus.

Marius shows awareness and creativity in other ways, too. While waiting behind fortifications for an opportune time to attack some Teutonic barbarians, he has all his men take turns on the walls so they can see what the enemy looks like. "For he very rationally supposed that the strangeness of things often makes them seem formidable when they are not so; and that by our better acquaintance, even things which are really terrible lose much of their frightfulness." I love the way Plutarch takes the opportunity to approve Marius's plan as rational. And I think he's right; I've certainly seen the principle borne out in my life. I wish I could remember where I read that people generally get braver as they grow older because they have learned what kinds of adversities they survive; I've certainly experienced that progression.

As a final entry in this random list of observations, I'll note that Plutarch fills the story of Marius with an unusual number of vivid scenes and tableaus. Marius dams the Rhone, for instance, to make an easier approach for his ships. The Teutons descend from the alpine foothills by sliding down the ice on their shields. Plutarch seems to understand the spherical shape of the earth, because he says the Teutons live in a place where the "declination of the parallels" results in the celestial north pole lying very close to the zenith, and notes that they divide the whole year into one long day and one long night. OK, so he doesn't know geography well enough to know that Switzerland is not above the arctic circle, but he has heard marvelous-yet-true stories about someone and offers an explanation.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pyrrhic Victory

Most people at school, including me, think my friend Mike Lee knows everything. He has both the experience and the aptitude for knowledge: he took 240 hours for his bachelor's degree, and his mind is, as they say, like a sponge. His interests include everything from from alchemy to Zen Buddhism, from European history to monster movies, from Shakespeare to Dungeons & Dragons. He remembers all the nuances of motivations in minor scenes of movies, scenes that I usually didn't understand to begin with. He quotes lines from books and plays verbatim. He remembers what level he got to with a Neutral Good human druid he played when he was fifteen. So he really surprised me one day several years ago when I said something about a Pyrrhic victory and he asked, "What's that?"

Today I got to read more about Pyrrhus and his many victories, Pyrrhic or otherwise, in Plutarch's Lives. Hannibal said Pyrrhus was the third greatest general who ever lived, and his military record seems to bear out that reputation, although his ambition and political obtuseness hindered him from achieving much worldly success. All in all, his story provides Plutarch with the perfect opportunity to do what Plutarch does, and I love the results.

As I began reading today, I learned about Cineas, a student of the great orator Demosthenes and a counselor to and ambassador for Pyrrhus. Cineas asks Pyrrhus: "What will you do when you defeat the Romans?" "Take Sicily," the general replies. Cineas asks: "And after that?" "Macedonia." Cineas presses: "And after that?" "After that," says Pyrrhus, "we will enjoy an easy, pleasant life free from enemies." "Well, then," Cineas asks, "why not just stay at home and enjoy a carefree life without going to war and making enemies to begin with?" This question lingers over the rest of the biography: Why fight at all? I keep asking Pyrrhus this question often enough, I begin to ask myself; without ever issuing blatant challenges, Plutarch has a way of making his reader apply his moral lessons introspectively.

Pyrrhus must ask himself the question after a couple of victories against the Romans, especially in a battle near Asculum. Here he finally realizes that with every victorious battle, his own forces dwindle, while Rome simply uses its loss to call up more men and more determination from a seemingly bottomless supply of both. "Another such victory," says Pyrrhus, "will undo us." And thus the phrase Pyrrhic victory was born: a tactical victory so costly that it nearly loses the larger war. So why did he fight? Oh, yeah, a life of pleasure. When Caius Fabricius, the ambassador from the serious-minded Roman Republic hears of Pyrrhus's preference for this Epicurean philosophy of pleasure, he shouts a prayer to Hercules, expressing his wish that Pyrrhus may hold that destructive philosophy for as long as he makes war with the Romans. What a great reminder that if we fight for freedom, that word needs to mean something more profound than just being able to do whatever we want.

The life of Pyrrhus has many thrilling moments; the story includes baby princes hidden from a usurping king, shipwrecks in a violent storm, and an elephant charge that creates an earthquake so terrifying it makes even the mighty Roman legions demonstrate the better part of valor and retreat. But the most amazing stories involve the Roman sense of honor. After approaching within thirty-seven miles of Rome, Pyrrhus asks the Roman Senate for a treaty of alliance. He returns all the prisoners of war he has captured in the previous battles as a gesture of good faith: it is time for all good Romans to celebrate Saturnalia. But he stipulates that they must come back into custody if the Romans don't agree to vote on peace. After Saturnalia, the Romans decide not to settle for peace, and they send all the prisoners back, not wishing to have any advantage obtained dishonorably. Similarly, when one of Pyrrhus's advisors tries to betray him by sending information to the Romans, Caius Fabricius sends a letter to Pyrrhus revealing everything. "We do not disclose this to you out of any favour to you," he explains, "but lest your ruin might bring a reproach upon us, as if we had ended the war, by treachery, as not able to do it by force." I couldn't help thinking of Bonhoeffer's observation that some modern nations had rejected such devotion to honor in favor of a view that victory justifies any cost and any means (spies, treachery, assassination).

Because the world works the way it does, Mike Lee has encountered the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" several times since I first mentioned it to him. He usually lets me know about it when it comes up, and he laughs and says he wouldn't have understood it if I hadn't told him about the third greatest general of ancient times. By the way, Hannibal considered himself at the top of the list of three. If you want to know who was second, ask Mike Lee. I'll bet he knows.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

By the Way

My original ten-year plan, the one that came with the Britannica Great Books set, made only a few assignments from Plutarch's Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans: Theseus, Romulus, Lycurgus, and Numa from the legendary or semi-legendary times, and the more historical Alexander and Caesar. That's only six of the forty-eight essays, one-eighth of the whole book, so, since I enjoyed them all so well, I made sure to include Plutarch in my second decade, assigning the lives a few each year so I would have finished the entire book by the end of the tenth year.

And Plutarch has never disappointed me. Now, I need help with context since he doesn't include any kind of dating system and tells the stories of these lives out of order; Plutarch simply assumes his readers know geography and the general outline of history. But with some maps and a timeline, the stories start to fall into their places in the puzzle, and the panorama that takes shape includes interesting political events, exciting stories, and -- above all -- valuable moral lessons.

Plutarch's general goal is to prove that morals had declined by the eighth Roman century (roughly our second century), but he doesn't seem to sugar-coat his biographies. I've just started Pyrrhus this year, and already in the first few pages, Plutarch has reported several occasions on which Pyrrhus made a bad decision. He arranges his stories in pairs (thus the title) in order to compare characters and to draw lessons. Perhaps, for instance, courage and determination remain valuable only while the determined plan stays wise; a comparison of Flamininus and Philopoemen helps us consider the problem. "As to their failings," Plutarch says frankly, "ambition was Titus's [i.e. Flamininus's] weak side, and obstinacy Philopoemen's." At the end of his comparison, he concludes, "Since it does not appear to be easy, by any review or discussion, to establish the true difference of their merits and decide to which a preference is due, will it be an unfair award in the case, if we let the Greek bear away the crown for military conduct and warlike skill, and the Roman for justice and clemency?"

Many of the most interesting passages in the book are secondary to the main stories: backstories, sidestories, and philosophical observations told by the way. Last year, for instance, in the history of Marcellus, I read about the famous scientist and engineer Archimedes, a story that especially tickled my fancy since my grandson shares that name. According to Plutarch, Archimedes possessed "a profound soul" and engaged in mathematical speculations "in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, or the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration." (I have no doubt that his twenty-first-century namesake will follow in his footsteps.) And in the tale of Aristides, I read a valuable passage on a comparison of various divine attributes. We honor the gods, Plutarch says, for immortality, power, and virtue, but surely virtue is the greatest and the most desirable. He offers two arguments. First, irrational things can be immortal (remember what the ancients thought about the heavens) and powerful, but only a person can be virtuous. Second, we do not admire people who have long lives and great power but lack in virtue, so we should covet virtue the most of all the divine attributes.

Plutarch came up with that view having only the Roman gods as models. Translating his argument into Christian terms and pondering the question of which attributes of Christ we should most want to emulate (his ability to calm waves, for instance, or his compassion?) could be valuable and instructive.

Friday, August 5, 2011

One Year Ago

One year ago tomorrow, I started this blog. Nancy and I had seen Julie & Julia (in which a woman blogs about her plan to cook through the entire Julia Child cookbook in one year), and she told me then that I should start a blog about my writing plan. It sounded like another great idea I'd never get around to -- like the Tolkien opera, the Dickens game, and various novels whose nascent forms have lived in my head for decades -- until I got laid up with nothing to do for two weeks. Last year at this time I was ill; without any more details, let's just say that while I could barely get out of bed, my mind was as clear as usual, and crossword puzzles and movies get old after about twelve straight days. So I Googled instructions on starting a blog, found Blogspot, and started writing.

This is my 120th post, which means that I have averaged almost exactly one post every three days. At one point, I meant to start writing short posts more often with the little essays only every week or so, but that never happened. Nancy says it's because I am constitutionally incapable of writing a short post, and I think she's right. So I plan to keep on writing about every third day.

Writing this blog during the last year has become very important to me; a lot has come out of it. For one thing, I've read many things more closely than I would have without the blog, and I've taken more notes. Committing to exlibrismagnis means that I have to be prepared to talk about everything on the plan. It also means that I remember more of what I have read this last year: not only because I've been reading more carefully, but because writing helps the memory. I've talked with two people who asked my advice on drawing up their own reading plans, and I've reconciled with an old friend who saw in my blog some things that he liked. So, yeah, it's been a good year.

I've explained various times that I schedule harder material for the first six or eight months of the year, so I started blogging last year just about the time the my reading reached its fun-factor peak. What I hadn't realized at the time is how much harder it would be not just to read the denser material but to blog about it. Hegel? Kant? Spengler? How am I supposed to write about these guys and critique what they say when the experts admit they can't straighten it all out? (Wait a minute, I sense a theme in those names. Note to self: don't commit to so many pages of German philosophy in one year again.)

But now the day follows the night, the reward follows the work, the dessert follows the vegetables, the arsis follows the thesis, and Paul McCartney follows the Sun. I started Plutarch today and rejoiced at my return to familiar, beloved territory. I don't catch all the references by any means, but Plutarch tells interesting stories and draws valuable morals from the lives he records. (I'm still scratching my head over Spengler. What did he mean by saying the classical mind cared nothing for the past or for a man's character? How can he say that when Plutarch is in the world?) I can't wait to share more of my thoughts about Plutarch, Durant, Trollope, Chesterton, and Catton. I can't wait to spend another two weeks with Boswell wandering the streets of London and joining Dr. Johnson for meals. I can't wait to relive Lewis's search for and discovery of joy. And I can't wait to travel to Italy with Dickens -- just before I leave for a six-month stay in Italy myself.

My favorite posts so far:
Saluting Captain Cuttle
Dickens's Christmas Encounters
The Mingling of the Lights
Without Repetition
David Copperfield's Memory
A Book List for Kids

I've had frequent visits from readers on three continents. You seem to have found a different set of posts more entertaining, if the list at the bottom of this page is any indication. But I'm just glad anyone has found anything worth reading here. Thanks for sticking with me.