Sunday, June 30, 2013

Magister Imperatorque Latine

As I read this month through The Truelove and The Wine-Dark Sea, volumes 15 and 16 Patrick O’Brian’s amazing series of novels on the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, I kept some notes on Latin phrases that appeared. When I looked them up later, what struck me most was the variety of sources drawn upon. The scope tells us something about Stephen and, of course, his creator.

Several of the phrases come, as expected, from classical literature, revealing a classical education of reading the ancients in their original languages. Non sum qualis eram, “I am not as I was,” comes from Horace’s Odes, IV.1. Two quotations come from Petronius. Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas, from a short poem, means, “Filthy and short is the pleasure in copulation.” From the Satyricon we get two lines:

    Sic erimus cuncti postquam nos auferet Orcus
    ergo vivamus dum licet esse, bene.

    Thus will we all be after Orcus carries us away
    Therefore let us – as long as it is allowed! – live well.

I don’t remember what scene of death Stephen was looking on when he said these lines, but they make most sense in the presence of human bones. Hamlet’s gravedigger might have expressed such a sentiment. (Hamlet had a different reaction.)

And from Livy’s History comes Vae victis! In 390 B.C., the Gauls took the city of Rome and made the citizens give up a certain amount of gold. When the Romans noticed that the weights used to measure the gold were doctored, the Gauls’ commander, Brennus, shouted, “Vae victis! – Woe to the conquered!” There’s a tinge of sarcasm in the reply. In our time, an era in which Mad magazine’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” has become a guide to everyday discourse, we might say, “Boo hoo!” or “Go write your Senator,” or “Here’s an uncia. Go call someone who cares.”

A couple of the phrases come, as far as I can make out, from ancient literature but may have reached Stephen through later usages. Lignum vitae is the tree of life from Genesis 2 in Jerome’s Vulgate translation. But in modern times, the phrase identifies the guaiacum tree, which has particularly potent medicinal qualities. And Homo hominis lupus, “Man is a wolf to man,” appears originally in Plautus, but was quoted by later philosophers, notably Hobbes, whom surely Stephen has read. Taedium vitae, which means ennui or perhaps even clinical depression, has no classical source I could locate. But it does appear several times in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, a book doubtless quite familiar to Stephen.

Three phrases appear to be Stephen’s (thus O’Brian’s) original concoctions. Tertium in tabulatum mali, “into the third layer of evil,” recalls the circles of Dante’s Inferno, but that work was written in Florentine Italian. (The Divine Comedy, in fact, played a large part in causing Florentine to become the common language of most of the peninsula.) When asked for the Latin for “pudding,” Stephen offers sebi confectio discolor, “a multicolor composition of animal fat” (or more literally, “of animal fat a composition multicolored”). Finally, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that educated officers in the Royal Navy commonly said such phrases as nodi decem.  But they may not have used a number as high as decem. After all, few ships of the time can match Surprise’s ten knots.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hope, Fear, Despair, and Presumption

Philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries valued reason so much, they tried to reduce human emotions to their mechanical constituents. Nineteenth-century philosophers, on the other hand, favored the individual, the emotional, the reflective, the inexplicable so much that they romanticized logic, many of them making it the product of a living cosmos that evolved by force of will until it had produced rational creatures who could think about it in amazed self-love. In contrast to both, the scholasticism of Thomas honored reason, authority, empirical evidence, and a deep desire to line up listable things in one-to-one correspondences.

Take the beatitudes, for instance. In his survey of the theological virtues, Thomas wants to assign each of the characteristics praised by Jesus to exactly one of the virtues, even to one associated aspect of one of the virtues. Cleanness of heart, for example, corresponds to the gift of understanding, which works with the virtue of faith. Those who mourn do so from the gift of knowledge, says Aquinas, knowledge being another gift associated with faith. The poor in spirit have filial fear, a gift associated with hope. Correspondences like these seem like stretches to me, but Thomas’s fondness for them comes from a mind that can provide a helpful outline of the components of the spirit-led Christian life, so I smile forgivingly and move on.

The last part of my yearly passage through the Summa Theologica covered the virtue of hope and its associated gifts and vices. Every aspect of Aquinas’s explanation flows from his definition of hope: the longing for a future good, difficult but not impossible to attain. Theological hope has as its object eternal happiness with God. Faith must precede hope, he explains, since one must have the object of hope proposed intellectually. But hope, he goes on to say, precedes love for God in most Christians: we want the happiness for ourselves first and then learn to love God for his own sake.

I was suprised to see Thomas describe fear as both a contrary to hope and a gift of the Holy Spirit, but his analysis made sense to me in the end. After all, the Bible tells us both that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and that perfect love casts out fear, so there must be some intrinsic tension to the notion. Thomas’s solution is to divide fear into three categories: fear of worldly things, which can turn us away from God; servile fear, that is, the fear of punishment, the fear that, as a famous movie villain once explained, will keep us in line; and filial fear, the fear of separation from God. The second and third types both keep us close to God, but as love grows during our lifetime, it diminishes servile fear and increases filial fear. Even in Heaven, where servile fear is eliminated completely, the Blessed will have a type of filial fear, not in that they actual believe they might lose their eternal reward, but in that they will never cease to wonder that God has granted it. I found this analysis logical and helpful.

Even more helpful in day-to-day life, though, was Aquinas’s accounts of the vices opposed to hope: despair and presumption. Both are sins in that they insist on a false view of God. Despair knows of God’s justice, but the despairing soul acts on the belief that God’s mercy could never apply to her. Presumption, on the other hand, has every confidence in God’s mercy, but the person who presumes on that mercy believes that God’s justice doesn’t have anything to do with him individually. The definition of hope comes in very handy here. The desparate sees eternal happiness as impossible to attain, while the presumptuous sees its achievement as not arduous at all.

Now here’s where I might part with Thomas on his neat correspondence schemes. Presumption he aligns with the mortal sin of vainglory, or pride; the presuming soul values himself so highly, thinks of himself as so special, that he can’t believe anything he does could deserve God’s punishment. Thomas then sees despair arising from (or should it be descending from?) the sin of sloth. But can’t despair come also from a kind of pride? I’ve known a couple of people who feared they’d done something special enough to put them forever outside God’s forgiveness. Really? You’re so special that your sins are categorically worse than mine?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Increase Your Word Power with Patrick O’Brian – 2013

What am I to say about volumes 15 and 16 in a series of novels with a devoted following? Yes, I could talk about the fascinating character of Clarissa Oakes and Dr Maturin’s relationship with her. Or I could talk about a chase through a field of icebergs or a climb through the Andes. But if you’ve read these books, you love them and don’t need my view of them, while if you haven’t read them, it will take you a while to get here. (And by the way, if you like history, adventure, sailing, anatomy, geology, zoology, anthropology, world travel, human geography, religion, political science, espionage, music, literature, humor, and drama, start reading Master and Commander as soon as possible.)

But last year I posted a vocabulary quiz that the online O’Brian community seemed to enjoy. So this year, I’m offering a new challenge, with twenty-five words I encountered these last ten days in The Truelove and The Wine-Dark Sea. Match each word in the numbered list with a definition from the second, lettered list. Answers are given below.

1. advowson
2. atrabilious
3. casuistical
4. cholagogue
5. contund
6. coruscate
7. crapulous
8. crepitation
9. daedal
10. farinaceous
11. firkin
12. gelid
13. gimbals
14. glebe
15. hieratic
16. idoneus
17. mephitic
18. objurgation
19. pantisocratic
20. scelerate
21. scoria
22. subjacent
23. supererogation
24. temerarious
25. thaumaturge

a. to give off bright light
b. melancholy; peevish
c. priestly; highly formal
d. notably wicked
e. a substance that promotes the flow of bile
f. icy
g. skillful
h. rebuke
i. the refuse from melting metals; cindery lava
j. having a mealy surface
k. pound, bruise
l. performance of more than is required by duty
m. a suspended support that allows an object to remain level during transport
n. the right to present a nominee for a benefice
o. a crackling sound
p. suitable
q. foul-smelling
r. land yielding revenue to a parish church
s. marked by specious or rationalizing argument
t. magician
u. presumptuous
v. lower than though not directly below
w. marked by intemperance in food or drink
x. characterized by (or believing in) universal equality in government
y. a small vessel with a capacity equal to 1/4 barrel

Don’t scroll any farther until you’re ready!



1-n, 2-b, 3-s, 4-e, 5-k, 6-a, 7-w, 8-o, 9-g, 10-j, 11-y, 12-f, 13-m, 14-r, 15-c, 16-p, 17-q, 18-h, 19-x, 20-d, 21-I, 22-v, 23-l, 24-u, 25-t

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Ending with Peirce

After many years of hearing about and reading about Charles Peirce, I finally finished reading a comprehensive selection of the writings of Peirce himself.  In March the experience started very positively. The introduction to my reader, by Justus Buchler, provided a very clear overview, and the first selections gradually built a coherent edifice. Peirce’s system explained logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, psychology, science, and mathematics, and I began to see why he has been called the greatest American philosopher.

A couple of weeks ago, I finished the book, but if I can continue with the house-building metaphor, I must say that the roof looked full of holes and on the verge of collapse. Peirce started out sounding like Aristotle to me but ended up sounding like Hegel without the force of his picturesque, Romantic prose style. Consider the following neat brickwork. According to Peirce, a probabilistic syllogism consists of rule, case, and result. (That covers logic.) In the mental process, the rule corresponds to a habit (i.e. knowledge), the case to a sensation, and the result to a volition. (There’s psychology.) Looking for the result is called deduction, for the rule, induction, and for the case or cause, hypothesis or abduction. (And there’s epistemology.) And science, he says, has need for all three searches: the formulation of rules, the identification of causes, and the prediction of results. Everything works together so well, it seems that Peirce has uncovered the pattern of the universe, the thread that binds the human and the natural.

But then I discover that Peirce says universal laws are not fixed, that they evolve along with everything else. Really? Even the laws of the syllogism? His argument for evolution of law begins with the observation of the diversity of the universe. Science seems to indicate that everything works by laws, but that’s only because it looks at things that act uniformly. If we could get ourselves interested in the chaotic multiplicity all around us, we’d see that chance must happen in the universe. The universe could not have started out uniform and developed variety (unless true chance exists, which means the universe wasn’t really totally uniform to begin with). So it must have begun in fortuitous chaos, after which laws evolved. I want to ask, how does he know that it evolved either one way or the other? Could it not have started out with both law and chance, determinism and indeterminism, and then continued with each operating in its own sphere?

Peirce also loses me when he says that only by accepting the existence of chance can we explain personality. He sounds a lot like C. S. Lewis for a moment when he points out that if our thoughts were deterministic, they couldn’t be logical, not even the thought that thoughts are deterministic. But then he diverges sharply from Lewis’s argument against naturalism. Having tossed out determinism, Peirce says he’s proved that chance exists. Are those the only two choices? If the mind works by chance, then haven’t we lost logic and personality just as much as when we accept total determinism?

But Peirce does see and accept personality and mind. In one of the final sections of the book, he says that in order to explain the two fundamental facts, mind and matter, we have only three choices: either mind is principle, or matter is principle, or they are co-equal. Materialism he rejects as “repugnant” to logic (although I think he might mean that it pulls the rug out from under logic – the argument I referred to in the previous paragraph). Dualism he rejects by Occam’s Razor. (Is Occam’s Razor an epistemological law that merely evolved?) So what’s left is . . . Despite his hasty dismissal of the first two theories, I was excited to see him exalt the mind of God as the ultimate reality, the last viable option. But instead, when he determines that mind is the principle of existence, he concludes that “the one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind.” The dessicated corpse of mind? Really? Several billion people believe one way or another that matter is not mind but was created by a divine mind. Is the theory of the majority of the earth’s population really beneath notice?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Fly Around Aquinas

I find it very difficult to put a distinguishing label on my Christian faith. I pray frequently for the holy catholic and apostolic Church, but I’m not a Catholic with a capital C. I recite the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed with full sincerity, so I trust that my beliefs are orthodox; but I’m not Orthodox with a capital O. The term “Protestant” probably best conveys the right idea to someone about my faith, but I’m not protesting anything. I think Paul warns us against labels in I Corinthians 1, but I’m only one against about two billion Christians who seem comfortable with labels, so I accept my eccentricity.

Perhaps rather than finding a single word to stamp me with, it would paint a clearer picture for me to say that while I’m not a Roman Catholic, I love Thomas Aquinas. I look forward to reading him for about a month each year, and every time, I draw tremendous amounts of enlightenment and encouragement from him. He’s not perfect, though. His method of framing every issue in a yes-and-no question, for instance, doesn’t always work: his answer is frequently some version of “It depends.” More importantly, I just don’t think he’s always right. Not holding any formal obligation to the Papacy, I don’t have any obligation to believe everything this Doctor of the Church says. Still, after about fifteen ample yearly samples of the Summa Theologica, I’ve found very little I couldn’t imagine myself conceivably agreeing with. Until now.

This year, I’ve begun the section on the theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. At the end of the long part on faith, Thomas treats vices opposed to faith: unbelief, heresy, and apostasy. And in the part on heresy, he says that after warning a person two or three times who has previously declared allegiance to Christ but now refuses to agree with approved doctrine, the Church may rightfully put that person to death. It seems to come out of the blue (or possibly the black). His method normally sets up laboriously and meticulously every supporting point that he plans to make use of eight-hundred pages down the road. Then here suddenly, there’s not just a little wacky confusion of truth and culture that we can excuse with a smile, but rationalization for a horrifying part of history without any logical build-up. He cites Titus 3:10-11 as support, but that verse says to avoid the entrenched heretic, not to kill him.

I had a Catholic friend once who spent a lot of time with me talking about matters of faith, Christian history, and biblical interpretation. We had a good time. We ate meals together. We traveled to conferences together. But I discovered ultimately that his relationship with me was founded entirely on a unidirectional agenda. He told me I was separated from my true home, from my Mother, and that he was trying to make me realize how much I wanted to enter into the communion of the Roman Catholic Church. His statement that I was not a member of the Body of Christ but rather a fly hovering around the Body didn’t help entice me at all.

Eventually this friend asked me point-blank if I would become Catholic (with a capital C), and I said, no. Then he asked if (a) I was convinced and just didn’t want to submit to the truth or (b) I remained unconvinced. My answer to him filled in box (b) in his head. I never had another meal with him. He lost all interest in me. I think I was his project, and he realized that he had failed. He had never met a Protestant who liked Aquinas, so I think he felt a lot of hope in the beginning. I guess I ended up wasting a lot of his time.

I thought about him a lot reading these passages on unbelief and heresy. And now I’m reinterpreting his final multiple-choice question and realizing that had I given him answer (a), it may have earned me a new label: heretic. As melodramatic as this sounds, I wonder now if he was trying to ascertain whether I deserved execution.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Rain of Death

Death pervades Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth. Old people die. Young soldiers die. Daughters die. Characters talk about it. Characters dread it. The preacher, Brother Piston, tries to console surviving family members after a loved one dies.

But the novel doesn’t treat death as altogether bad. Old Jack Beechum, for instance accepts his inevitable death calmly: “He speaks of the approach of his own death as much as a matter of fact as he speaks of the approach of Tuesday.” His acquiescence probably comes partly from his understanding that death may be a means to an end. He hates to see boys from his town die in war, but, he reasons, “It may be necessary to use up the lives of young men . . . . A choice has to be made between terrible sacrifice and terrible defeat.”

Other characters and circumstances show that death can be a price worth paying for a greater good. Sometimes the lesson somes out symbolically, even allegorically. Uncle Stanley Gibbs digs graves among his other duties at the church. Or has dug them until lately. He can still use the shovel but finds it hard these days to move his old knees enough to get out of the hole once he digs it. The effects of impending death take away his livelihood and literally put him in an early grave. So he asks Jayber Crow, a character who has thought he has no purpose, to take over that part of his job. Jayber finds that for the first time he has a plan, that he possesses “not only a life, but a death.” And Uncle Stanley, now more appreciative than ever of the job he almost lost, discovers that what he gave up has come back. “It is a resurrection. He thought he was a goner, but now his life is twice as abundant as before.”

The novel is told in the present tense, and this, too, plays a symbolic role in the book’s lesson of life, death, and resurrection, of loss and hope. Virgil Feltner has been reported missing in action. The narrator tells us: “The news has gone its rounds among the gathering places, and has quietly set the young man’s life into the past tense of the town’s consciousness. . . . To speak of him in the present tense becomes the private observance of his family.” Burley Coulter expands on the notion of family observance of death in a letter to his nephew Nat, also away at war: “We don’t rest in peace. The life of a good man who has died belongs to the people who cared about him.” Put it all together, and it seems to say that Wendell Berry sees his characters as virtual family and cares about them too much to speak of them in the past tense. I reported a few days ago that I sensed constant hope in the book, and now I see why.

Rain also pervades A Place on Earth. Like death, it hinders people’s movements. It tests their patience. It tests their works (as when young Virgil plows his first field incorrectly). And the connection between rain and death solidifies when a flash flood caused by the inexorable rain carries away a young girl. And so these parallels reinforce the view that death, just like rain, is both bad and good. The rain that caused the river to rise also brings new life out of the fields each spring. And the same death that puts lost soldiers into the past tense brings resurrection.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Place on Earth

As I reported in the last post, I have given up on my plan to read two Faulkner novels this year. Already way ahead on my schedule, I had plenty of time to try some things off the list, so I started A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry. I found out about Berry a couple of years ago in my continuing search for Christian authors in the twentieth century. My prejudice may be ill-founded, but most recent Christian fiction seems more like pulp than literature; at least the covers make it look that way. And I keep thinking that surely some Christian in the last fifty years has done something like Lewis or Waugh or Greene. So every few months I Google it again to see what I can find.

So far Berry satisfies my itch. He writes poetic prose, and the Christianity comes through clearly without sounding forced. Oddly, the book reminds me a lot of Faulkner: a small town and its group of families with long intertwining histories; carefully worded, vivid descriptions of things, thoughts, and feelings; characters haunted by the past; various kinds of veils of mystery for the reader to get lost in. Reading about Berry a couple of days ago, I found out that all his novels tell stories of the same town, with timeframes reaching back to the nineteenth century; so Faulkner’s shadow surely does hover behind Berry’s figure. And yet I come away from Berry with a hope I don’t usually get from Faulkner. If they both talk to me incessantly about the painful sore on my soul, at least Berry does so while putting some balm on it. This spring anyway, I felt judgment from Faulkner, while so far from Berry I sense commiseration.

Every character in the novel has a backstory of pain and death to deal with. There’s Frank Lathrop, who watches after the shop of his son Jasper, who has gone to war – watching not consisting of running the store but rather of meeting friends in its back room for a regular game of rummy. There’s the lame carpenter, Ernest Finley, who finds his shop gradually arranged so as to require the least amount of walking possible. There’s Uncle Stanley Gibbs, who has lost his hearing and answers everyone’s first greeting as if it were a question about his health (it rarely is). There’s Jayber Crow, who thinks because he was adopted that his life was begun without a purpose, and thinks because his life was begun without purpose that he can never find any later in life, either. There’s Burley Coulter who raises his nephews after their mother dies and their father abandons them, only to see one of them killed in the war. And there’s Nat, the surviving nephew, who has to live with the loss of mother, father, and brother. The narration tells us that these events and circumstances shape each person and that among the losses one must learn to accept is the loss of the person he would have been had life gone differently.

Whatever Berry's brand of Christianity is, it doesn’t offer easy, ready-made answers. In fact, the characters merely tolerate the preacher when he comes to offer condolences after a son is lost in war, because the preacher’s words don’t recognize the unique circumstances of the personalities involved. Instead, the grieving townsfolk think of him as merely offering a set speech with blanks filled in by names meaningless to him. Talk of the Hereafter brings no solace to a creature who cannot find a place on earth. And that place has to accommodate loss and the individuality loss shapes in each of us.

Monday, June 3, 2013


German composer Paul Hindemith once explained that he saw music listeners as co-composers. A listener encountering a piece for the first time but knowledgeable of its style hears both the actual piece, Hindemith says, and the piece that he expects to hear moment-by-moment. Listening to a passage, this engaged audience member thinks (in a manner of speaking), “Yes: up, and up, and up, and then up some mo— oops, it actually went down there.” In this way the savvy listener sits in spirit at Hindemith’s elbow, composing along with him a parallel piece, similar to the original but, if Hindemith knows what he’s doing, not as good.

When I read, I experience not just two but several parallel streams of ideas. I hear the words (some people don’t – those would be the people who can read faster than a snail’s pace). I see pictures of the people and events. I think of the ideas being expressed. I ask myself “What happens next?” and “How does this fit in?” and “What does the countess want with a torn workman’s glove?” I start to think of my old gloves, and the lawn which needs mowing. I wonder if I’ll have enough money to pay to have the lawn mowed this summer. I think of more lucrative careers I could have had. I come back and reread p. 213.

Sometimes the parallel streams sound something like, “I can’t stop now. Maybe just one more page, and then I’ll get up to take care of the yard. Or three more pages: that will get me to the end of the chapter. Oh, the next chapter’s not very long, either. Maybe the yard can wait.” Sometimes I deal with thoughts saying, “Oh, no! I don’t remember this character (or term or object) at all. Should I go back and find her? Or should I just keep going and hope it al becomes clear in a page or two?”

Sometimes, when the book and I don’t get along so well, the prose I compose to go along with it says something more along these lines: “I don’t remember this character, and I don’t seem to care. Maybe if I just plow ahead, I can get through the book by tomorrow. As a guy I think I got the main point.” As a guy with a ten-year reading Plan, I’m used to plowing, and I’m pretty good at it.

But two days ago, I actually gave up on a book. I left unfinished only two books from the first decade of reading, and I hadn’t dropped or even shortened anything from the second. But six-and-a-half years into it, I stopped Failkner’s Absalom, Absalom! 16% of the way through. I’m not totally sure why. If I have enough reading discipline to have a ten-year book plan, why didn’t I have enough discipline to get through this one novel? I’ve read some Faulkner before that I really enjoyed (The Unvanquished, The Sound and the Fury) and some that I was oddly fascinated by (As I Lay Dying). Maybe it’s that I read another Faulkner novel just two months ago. Maybe it’s that the theme of this one seemed to be exactly the same as that of Light in August: people haunted by stories ancestors have told of ancestors from before the Civil War. Maybe it’s summer and I just wasn’t in the mood for sentences a page-and-a-half-long.

I originally only had room for one Faulkner novel on my list; I just didn’t know which one I would read until last year, when I found strong reviews of two different ones. So I don’t feel I’ve betrayed myself too badly. After all, I only gave up on my decision to go above and beyond. I’m still right on track.

A parallel track, I’m sure.