Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Ahead to 2014

The end of Year 7. The beginning of Year 8. It doesn’t seem like eight years ago that I put together this decade-long plan of reading Great Books. Eight years ago I poured over each category time after time, adjusting, adding, subtracting, but mostly reordering. The process of deciding what book to put in what year made for quite a dilemma. On the one hand, I reassured myself that I was finally going to get to Euripides’ Electra, the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, and Mann’s Magic Mountain: works I strongly desired to read but would probably never get to if I lived out the rest of my life picking up my next book solely based on my feeling at the moment I ended the previous one. Most people dislike the books their schools require them to read precisely because they’re required, but I never noticed any lost joy in books because a teacher had assigned them. I certainly didn’t like every book I had to read. But I often finished the ones I didn’t like glad that someone had made me read it; “the achieve of; the mastery of the thing” felt good, and I was happy to know about a classic book and to be able to say why I didn’t like it. In the 1990s, I started making myself one-year plans and found that my own assignments worked in the same way: the mere presence of a list motivated me to complete it, I enjoyed most of the books I’d assigned myself, and I felt other benefits from the few I didn’t care for as much. So as I approached the finish line of Mortimer Adler’s ten-year plan for the Britannica Great Books after just eleven years, I decided to put all my literary wishes and experience into one master regimen. It took many months of planning, but eight years ago today, I looked at my completed schedule with great satisfaction knowing that in 2014 (provided I stayed on course) I would finally read some Tertullian.

On the other hand, I asked myself, “Can I really wait?” (Will I reveal something pathological if I admit that I actually normally talk to myself in the second person? To be completely honest, I asked myself, “Can you really wait?” Oh, I’ve probably already revealed something I should have kept hidden by admitting that I talk to myself at all.) “Can you really wait until 2014 to read the Arabian Nights? Phantastes? The poetry of Keats?” But January 2007 came, and I had to commit to some order, or the project would never get off the ground. So I put off finishing the Koran for eight years and got started. But now, here it is. The faithful sun has risen in the east 2555 times, and I’m about to read Aristotle’s On the Soul at long last.

Of course I have some concerns about the coming twelvemonth. At some point around fifteen years ago, I started reading Husserl’s Crisis of Modern Science and gave up (not a frequent occurrence for me), despite having heard so many academics drive me crazy by saying how important Husserl was without being able to say anything specific and clear about what Husserl taught – except that everybody misunderstood it all. I know I’ll have to work extra hard at it, but I want to finish the book, if only so I can finally be one of the everybody that misunderstands it. So here comes Husserl and his Crisis, split up into two smaller segments in February and April. And as much as I love G. K. Chesterton, I’ve found his anti-Hun diatribes from the World War I era very tiresome, so I’m expecting a few frustrating days in November as I read his Illustrated London News columns from 1916. At least I’ve paired them with 1921 so I have some pumpkin pie to enjoy after the dry turkey.

Mostly, though, I’m just really excited about what’s coming up for me. I bought Malory’s Morte d’Arthur thirty years ago and loved the first third of it. Why has it taken me so long to get back to it? (“Yeah, why has it taken you so long to get back to it?”) I can already taste its delicious soup of fifth-century pseudo-history, high-medieval chivalry, late-medieval French vocabulary, and early-modern English spelling. I already feel 50% of the inspiration of reading Aquinas’s teaching on Love. I already feel 60% of the excitement of wandering once more into the winding, branching labyrinth that is the plot of Orlando Furioso. I already feel 70% of the intellectual satisfaction of starting Durant’s account of the Reformation. And I feel right now, this very moment, exactly 83.33...% of the warmth that The Last Chronicle of Barset will blanket me with in August.

On top of all those rewards, 2014 will be for me a rich year of rereading. Beowulf! Augustine’s Confessions! Moby Dick! Sense and Sensibility! The Greater Trumps! I simply couldn’t type the words without the exclamation marks. But above all, my favorite, my treasured, my beloved Tale of Two Cities. (The blessing here is far too sacred for a tawdry excess of punctuation.) Next to the Bible and a few silly textbooks I’ve taught from, it’s the book I’ve reread the most. I’ll have so much to say about it, I should begin writing the posts now.

At the end of this past August, I completed two-thirds of The Plan. At the end of this coming June I’ll reach the three-quarter mark. And by a year from now, I’ll be four-fifths of the way through my decade-long reading agenda. (Does English have the word legenda? It should. Come to think of it, I’ll use the word right now and increase the size of the English vocabulary.) By a year from now, I’ll be four-fifths of the way through my decade-long legenda. It’s starting to look as though I might actually finish this ten-year plan in ten years. On the other hand, I’m retiring from one job this coming August and starting another job that has yet to reveal itself. We’ll leave our home of twenty-five years for a new, as yet unknown city. (Ooh! Trollope in August will provide just the remedy for the stress of moving!) How much time and effort will the relocating process take from my reading? How busy will I be in the new job? The whole outcome hinges on Year 8.

And with that overly dramatic observation, I bid 2013 adieu and wish you a New Year full of Happy Reading.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Awards – 2013

Over the last twenty-five years or so, the media have changed their approach to the end of the annual calendar in many disappointing ways. I remember as a child getting to stay up and watch the ball on Times Square (which is actually a triangle, but then again St. Peter’s Square is a circle, so I guess I shouldn’t look for geometrical accuracy here) – as I was saying before I was interrupted, I used to watch the ball on Times Square descend at 11:00 Central Time, and then again at 12:00 Central Time, when the generous and thoughtful New Yorkers celebrated New Year’s a second just for me, and then again at 1:00, when they celebrated on behalf of Boise, Idaho. But I don’t think the networks have shown the ball drop more than once per year since I reached adulthood. I also used to watch Dick Clark host a great concert with top acts. All aspects of that formula have sadly passed. I used to count on television to offer a review of the top news stories, which some years was the only way I kept up with the news. I gave up on the Time Man of the Year when they offered the title to a computer. Then I really gave up on the magazine when they couldn’t find a place for Walt Disney among the top 100 entertainers of the twentieth century, a man who mastered multiple media and invented several major forms of entertainment.

But readers of can count on the end of December offering new Book Awards. And without further hubbub, here they are.

Master of Ceremonies: Charles Dickens
I look for a way each year to put the Great Man at the top of the list of awards, mostly so someone else can win in the fiction category.

Best New Read, Poetry: Shelley’s “A Summer Evening Churchyard”
Silence and Twilight come creeping hand-in-hand into a church graveyard, and Shelley, the great atheist poet, gets a glimpse, a whisper, a hope that perhaps his poetic vision isn’t just the product of material forces after all but a glimpse, a whisper, and a hope of a Reality beyond Death.

Best New Read, Philosophy: Charles Peirce
Justus Buchler’s selection and introduction made for a very readable approach to the system of the man generally known as the United States’ greatest philosopher. And since the system includes ontology, epistemology, theology, anthropology, science, ethics, mathematics, and logic, a good guide is essential.

Best New Read, Theology: Anselm, Proslogium
Anselm didn’t offer the Ontological “Proof” as a proof. Who knew? (Apparently not any of the philosophers and historians whose words about Anselm I’d read.)

Best New Read, History: Gibbon
Gibbon’s award results from a combination of (1) providing information on a period of Roman history I knew nothing about and (2) abundantly overcoming his century’s tendency to dryness.

Most Surprisingly Clear and Interesting German Philosopher: Schopenhauer
Overcoming both his century’s (and his country’s) tendency to convolution and my grave concerns after so much recent German philosophy, Schopenhauer presented his dour outlook with great clarity. Again, having a selection arranged by an expert helped.

Best Reread, Fiction: Gulliver
Edging out Charles Williams this year is Jonathan Swift, whose music-theory-loving Laputians hit painfully close to the heart.

Best Reread, Drama: Eumenides
A moving defense of conscience and guilt.

Most Clarified on Rereading: Spinoza
I had read all of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics before, but it made no sense until I read it all at once, in order. What was Mortimer Adler thinking when he drew up the reading plan for the first ten years?

Best Offroading: John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By the time I finished the book, Michell had convinced me that no one could have written Shakespeare’s works: not the actor from Stratford, not Sir Francis Bacon, not the Earl of Oxford, not the Earl of Derby. Then, remembering that someone did in fact compose the plays, it occurred to me that the sense that no one could have written them was tantamount to the view that anyone could have written them. In other words, a mind this brilliant could have arisen even in a country town and could have overcome the limitations of a bad school.

Well, that’s how exlibrismagnis wrings out the Old Year. Next time, we’ll start ringing in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2013

The birth of Jesus Christ has elicited poetry from the beginning. A few weeks before the scene in the barn behind the inn, Jesus’ uncle Zechariah heralded the appearance of the unprecedented by singing about a dawn sun that would appear at the zenith (the “dayspring from on high”). Today we sing of angels bending near the earth, of love’s light beaming from the face of the Infant, and of a Savior with healing in his wings.

One of the most common poetic effects of the lyrics of Christmas hymns is the placement of the singer in the midst of the events of two-thousand years ago. And while we stand with shepherds in the field or with animals next to the manger or with Simeon in the Temple or with two other kings on the road from Persia, we sing to all manner of folk and even thing that we don’t normally talk to in the course of the rest of the year. We sing Christmas songs to the Christ Child, to the angels, to Shepherd and Sages. We sing to a star of wonder. We sing to a little town in deep and dreamless sleep. And once per year, Protestants pray to saints when they sing, “Mary, Joseph, lend your aid.”

In one of the most indispensable of Christmas hymns, we stand in some impossible position (at the center of Heaven?) and sing to every worshiper both human and angelic of God Almighty. O Come, All Ye Faithful. Come from every corner of Heaven and Earth, from all the span of time and from the spanless reaches of eternity. Come with me and adore Christ the Lord. Come and adore the King of Angels. Come and adore the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

What good this song does! What leaven it introduces to our contemporary lump! Because of this hymn, I learned some Latin verse from Bing Crosby when I was about five. Because of this hymn, the Latin language sings out for one month in the year over car radios and mall muzak systems. Because of this hymn, twenty-first-century Americans say the word “exultation” at least once a year. Because of this hymn, today’s church-goers even in some CCM megachurches sing imitative polyphony once a year. And because of this hymn, a few blessed souls in nonliturgical congregations – provided they sing the traditional second verse – sing part of the Nicene creed

I’ve written on other great Christmas songs in earlier posts. Just look through December in each of the years past for more articles entitled “Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol.” I hope you sing all of them with joy and triumph this season.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

More on Attention

In the previous post, I gave an account of William James’s description of my struggles with attention, especially attention while reading. (Yes, my struggles – he seemed to have no one else but me in mind.) This time, I want to report some of the solutions James offers in his chapter on attention in The Principles of Psychology.

His first but, in my view, least promising solution is simply effort. The will, according to James, is nothing but an effort made to pay attention to certain things and actions, and character, he says, is maturity of will. So, William James, I’ve been trying to be a man of character. Instead of letting the unread paragraphs go, I make a determined decision to read them again and a conscious effort to pay attention. I’m so determined, I’ve reread some paragraphs these last few months as many as four times. But I’m fifty-four, and the habit of mind-wandering is deeply ingrained. So while this line of attack sometimes finally gets a particular passage into my memory, I don’t know that it will ever make me generally more attentive.

James’s second solution involves association with other objects of interest. Schoolboys, he points out, don’t seem to listen to anything the teacher has to say until an anecdote begins, and then the unruly boys are all ears. Obviously they were listening at some level, or the first spoken words of the story wouldn’t have entered their heads enough to attract attention. But neither the words themselves nor the teacher are the objects of interest in this case; the boys like stories because they come with adventure, puzzles, laughter, or terror.The pleasure they’ve learned to associate with stories draws them in. This solution has only a little more promise than the first for me. The associations I make with classic literature – mental stimulation, historical interest, plot tension, satisfaction at achieving something long desired – have carried me through for fifty-three years, but not so much lately. Have my distractions simply begun to outweigh the positive associations I make with literature? Or do I need to invent new associations? Offer myself rewards for attention?

The first two solutions may not bring me much hope, but three other methods of heightening attention seem more likely to work for me. No one can spend a long time with an unchanging object, James says. Constant novelty makes a long attention span possible, and an intelligent person provides his own novelty by asking new questions and considering his object in new ways. I’ve found that stopping every sentence or two literally to ask a question about what I just read keeps my attention focused. In some reading, I’ve tried to keep a key phrase from a topic sentence in mind and then repeat it after a sentence from the middle of a paragraph, looking for connections.

Solution no. 4 is similar to the third. James also notes that attention is stronger and reaction time quicker when we anticipate what we experience. This pattern suggests that after asking myself about what I just read, I could also ask myself a question concerning what I’m about to read.

James’s final note about heightened attention explains a solution I found long ago. James theorizes that what goes in the mind must go out again, be “discharged” in one way or another. When he observes that some children can pay attention to their studies more successfully when fidgeting with a repetitive motion of the hand or foot, he explains the situation by saying that all the surrounding distractions flow out of the mind through the muscular movement. Because the motion is repetitive, it can proceed by habit, without entering conscious thought and providing yet one more distraction. I read this explanation and immediately thought of my walking. My attention span on the contents of a book increases dramatically when I walk as I read, which I try to do each morning. I’ve long realized that, although I’m aware of surrounding buildings and trees and the direction of the sidewalk as I read and walk, those things don’t distract me from the task at hand. I’ve felt that my awareness of the surroundings is directed and, yes, even discharged through the rhythmic motion of my legs.

Two or three days ago, a man walking his dog passed me on my morning constitutional and asked, as so many have before, “Isn’t it hard to read while you walk?” I answered simply, “Not so hard, really.” My complete thought was far too long to tell a stranger in passing: “On the contrary, each makes the other easier. Reading gets me through lengthy exercise each morning, and walking focuses my attention on the reading.”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Paying Attention to William James

I wrote earlier this fall about my diminishing powers of attention I feel the stress of this change fairly deeply. As much trouble as I have with attention to begin with, I’ve always had the characteristic, and yet I’ve always found a way to pursue my love of books in spite of it. But now I’ve set myself on a ten-year journey to read a long list of particular books, many of them difficult reads, and I find it harder and harder this fall to focus, making me start to wonder if I’ll be able to finish the race, not to mention starting on the third decade that I already have laid out starting in 2017.

Then I come to the last assignment of this year, turn to page 260 of William James’s Principles of Psychology, and discover that I set myself the task seven years ago of reading a chapter entitled “Attention.” My focus is suddenly laser sharp. The material in the chapter richly rewards my rapt attention, but I have to lay some general groundwork before discussing the particulars. Here and elsewhere, James argues that our mental life consists of a series of thoughts experienced one at a time. Against atomist psychologists, who teach that my thought about the plant sitting on my desk is actually a complex of simultaneous thoughts about elemental ideas of green, leaves, stalk, shape, number, etc., James sides more with what a little later will be called Gestalt psychology, claiming that I can have one thought about the whole complex object. I can then focus my attention on the color, or count the leaves and think about the total: attention, he says, is “the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.” But the process starts with a single thought about a complex object. In this chapter, the author says that maturity and experience are processes of focusing and learning to focus on certain details of the complex presented to our senses and to our minds.

William James has an eerie way of describing me to myself, especially regarding aspects of my thinking that I didn’t think anyone else could know about. It’s as if he has powers to look behind my mental curtains and expose my secrets. I guess his ability simply shows his success as a psychologist. But this chapter especially seemed all about me. The first passage that felt like a mirror actually had to do with distraction and lack of focus. He describes a state I’ve experienced many times, when my eyes go out of focus and “the sounds of the world melt into confused unity.” Memories of these kaleidoscopic experiences convince me of the idea that we have one thought at a time: my single thought at those moments is completely sensory and involves the whole chaotic manifold of sights and sounds. No train of ideas comes up, nothing urges me to move, because the single thought is of a disorganized field of things too random to mean anything. James notes that small children are especially subject to immediate sensorial stimuli; granting that each species has a natural tendency to focus on some things, he nevertheless theorizes that infants spend more time in the distracted state than adults and, without developed ideas to guide their focus, gravitate toward whatever is louder, brighter, etc. In the second passage seemingly written with me in mind, he posits, “This reflex and passive character of the attention . . . never is overcome in some people, whose work, to the end of life, gets done in the interstices of their mind-wandering.” “The interstices of my mind-wandering” is now a phrase I’ll use often to describe myself, which I’ll do now and then in the interstices of my mind-wandering.

James’s familiarity with my peculiar mind gets really uncanny when he describes an experiment done by Wilhelm Wundt. To show how difficult it is to pay attention to two things at once, Wundt constructed a device with a sweeping hand that spun on a dial about once a second, and then asked subjects to identify the exact location of the hand when a bell was struck. I wasn’t surprised at all to learn how inaccurate people’s answers were, because I’ve done a similar thing many times in trying to locate a skip on an LP and found the exercise extremely difficult. As a teenager, I used to try to find skips and fix them by adjusting a tiny bit of the plastic wall of the groove with a needle, or by deepening the groove itself. It worked often enough that I kept doing it. But most skips are irreparable. Still, in recent years, as I have been recording my LP collection to mp3, I’ve tried to fix some of the worst skips by dropping the needle in the one round of the spiral groove that gets missed and then cutting and pasting in a sound editor. The first step in this process requires locating the skip by watching the spinning label while listening to the record and trying to determine which part of the label aligns with the skip. Now you might ask why I don’t just spend a buck and buy the separate track online. For one thing, I’d be out a buck. For another, I wouldn’t have this story to tell. And James already makes me feel bad enough by saying that my attention problem comes from a lack of maturity. So let’s just let me have my habit of finding skips.

Actually, William James doesn’t make me feel all that bad in this chapter. He does admit that mind-wandering usually increases with age, which at least makes me think that I don’t have something abnormally wrong with me. And in fact, he highly praises my intelligence in another passage that he writes directly to me. People who deal with the-not-totally-accurately-named ADD or with children who have the trait know that attention “deficit” often results in very long commitments of attention to what seems personally interesting or stimulating. In explaining the phenomenon, James talks about geniuses like Archimedes incessantly working without any awareness of the war going on outside his window. In the same way, he says, people of great intelligence find their minds wandering while reading because the topic of the book raises up personally interesting associations that the thought then pursues. The eyes continue moving out of habit, and the words on the page actually even enter consciousness one-by-one momentarily but aren’t stored in memory. Suddenly a reader can finish a paragraph and realize he can’t remember anything he just read. And that is me and the problem I’ve had reading this fall. But is it a problem? After all, James doesn’t label me with a disorder. (Why do the acronyms of all my psychological traits have to end in D?) Instead, he puts me in a camp with Archimedes, Newton, and Pascal. Pretty good company.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Latin Lessons from Dr. Johnson

I wrote last week of life lessons offered in James Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. But Dr. Johnson shone in the era named after him for greatness both in moral philosophy (taught and lived) and in letters. So today I have some Latin lessons I picked up in the sixty pages I read this fall.

The glory days of Latin scholarship for children have sadly passed in these last hundred years or so. Goodbye, Mr. Chips, indeed! But Johnson and Boswell, of course, grew up in the traditional curriculum and could recite Ovid and Juvenal, Horace and Cicero word-for-word, because they had done so innumerable times in class. Their knowledge ran so intimately deep, they tossed off ancient phrases as easily as our high-school students spit out snarky comments of disdain for, well, just about everything. Boswell, for instance, says in a footnote that an advocate he knows ingenuas didicit fideliter artes: he earnestly learned the liberal arts. (In this way, he praised his classical education and demonstrated it at the same time!) The remark slightly modifies a quotation from Ovid, Ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes Emollit mores nec sinit esse feros: learning the liberal arts earnestly refines the manners and prevents us from being like wild brutes. Similarly, Johnson casually quotes the historian Tacitus at an opportune moment. Omne ignotum pro magnifico est, he says: Everything unknown is taken for (or is imagined to be) something magnificent.

Sadly, I need help translating these passages, even after several years of self study. I didn’t have a teacher to guide me when I learned Latin, and I had neither the mind nor the leisure of a twelve-year-old. But even when I get the words translated, I still need help understanding the context. Aphorisms are often pithy and a little cryptic, even in English. We say, “Easy come, easy go,” and we just know we’re talking about money and don’t balk a split second at the mysteriously plural verbs. When we hear, “The more, the merrier,” we know the speaker means people, and we don’t worry at all that the verb is missing altogether. But imagine someone who has grown up speaking a language other than English trying to work his way through these sayings with a dictionary: full understanding of each isolated word wouldn’t make the total meaning at all clear.

It was the same in Latin. The pithy Johnson quotes the pithy Horace, saying, Incredulus odi. The literal translation is, “Incredulous, I hate.” The phrase doesn’t provide an object: so what does he hate? And what does it mean to hate something that I believe doesn’t exist? What Dr. Johnson meant by it is that he didn’t want to have to listen to outrageous stories told as true tales. As another example, he cites Cicero in saying, Omnia mea mecum porto: I carry all my things with me. On the face of it, the phrase could invoke the image of Huck Finn carrying all his worldly possessions with him on the end of a stick. But apparently Johnson and Boswell took the Roman orator to mean that his most important possessions were his thoughts, which no one would take away from him. Virgil makes an appearance with Non equidem invideo; miror magis: Truly I do not envy; rather I marvel. Johnson quoted the ancient poet upon seeing Edmund Burke’s palatial home, so apparently he meant that he was amazed more than envious at his compatriot’s wealth; whether he marveled in an approving way, Boswell doesn’t clarify.

It took me a long time to decipher the meaning behind the meaning of a line Johnson remembers from Eton days. A classmate of his had written Vidit et erubuit lympha pudica DEUM in a free essay, and Johnson remembers that all the other boys really liked the line. Now what stood out about that line that would make Johnson remember it fifty years later above all his friends' other original compositions? My internet search got me to Richard Crashaw, who wrote in a classical-style poem, Nympha pudica deum vidit, et erubuit: The chaste nymph saw a god and blushed. The Eton scholar had changed only one letter: nympha gives way to lympha. A lympha can be a water nymph, so I couldn’t see at all what had earned Johnson’s attention. But I kept looking, and somewhere I found that the boy’s assigned theme was the first miracle of Jesus. Then the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. I remembered that lympha can also mean simply “water.” How did the water turn to wine? It saw God and blushed. I wish I had learned Latin when I was a tot and could have appreciated this very clever witticism without so much effort today. But non equidem invideo; miror magis.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lessons from Dr. Johnson

Conversation filled this year’s section of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Wonderful, glorious, nuanced, witty conversation. Johnson, Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon, and many others get together and talk page after page about foreign travel, slavery, city life and country life, keeping a journal, luxury, the obligations of landed gentlemen, laws concerning road repair, religious conversions, old age, death, tea, Quakers, history, emigration, musicians, wine, Latin, sermons, economics, the definition of trim, envy, Latin, Oliver Goldsmith, the difference between men and women, heaven, and plenty of poetry. They talk of illness, too, just as we do in our less refined time, but they treat even that subject with an elegance and intelligence that beatifies all sufferers. And of course they converse about conversation.

I always come away from Boswell wishing I were more like Samuel Johnson. This year, I left wishing I were bolder in speech. Over the last several years, I’ve become more and more cautious about what I say, keeping opinions to myself, speaking slowly through every sentence to make sure I use the right words. But the Great Man always had a reasoned opinion ready at his lips. He sometimes offended his interlocutors with his blunt statements, but then he granted others the freedom to speak their mind, and when he felt he was in the wrong, he apologized and reconciled. Why can’t I do that more? If someone is offended just by finding out what I think on a subject, what loss is that to me? And after all, how logically consistent is it for me to be offended upon discovering that my neighbor’s thought includes his offense upon discovering my thoughts?

Here are just a few of the other lessons I heard from Dr. Johnson in the last few weeks:

• There’s no reason to keep repeating words of regard and affection for others and no reason to demand reassurances from them, either.

• An excellent statue of a dog is worthy of our attention; people enjoy seeing or contemplating achievements that show what we thought humans could not do.

• A futile speech in a deliberative body still does good. It may well shape the faulty proposal before going into effect. But in any case, “They shall not do wrong without its being shown to themselves and to the world."

• The man who takes up an instrument and does nothing else undertakes a “small thing” and never has the time to undertake "great things."

• A man brings back understanding from foreign travel in proportion to his taking a ready mind.

• Philosophy does not have to be somber.

I need these lessons. Some of them suggest a correction in action or thought; I depend too much, for instance, on words of approval. Others encourage me to stay the course; I may seldom have occasion to observe a statue of a dog, but the greater lesson – that humble ends achieved with great skill deserve attention and praise – plays a central role in my musical aesthetic. I find great comfort in the lesson about futile speeches after having delivered many in faculty meetings. (I was once actually on the winning side in a big vote, but the Powers did what they wanted anyway.) And I don’t know exactly how to address publicly Johnson’s view of instrumental musicians except to say that that passage received the most vigorous highlighting of this year’s reading.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

But Do You Like Me, Like Me?

Love is such a difficult network of concepts, we can’t even seem to settle on a word for it. If we can love hot dogs, what thought, feeling, or state (we aren’t always sure of its genus, either) do we mean when we say that we love a person? In junior high, we distinguished degrees of attachment by using the word “like” either once or twice. “I like you, Winnie.” “What do you mean, Kevin? Do you like me, like me?” When I was a teenager, I once decided that saying I liked someone counterintuitively meant something more special than saying I loved someone, since I was bound by Christian teaching to love everybody but not to like everybody.

Ancient Greek had four different words for love. Paul chose agape to designate the Christian virtue he described in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Supposedly agape means sacrificial love and philia brotherly love or friendship. But I don’t know that the Greek speakers consistently used the first word to indicate a deeper or holier love than that meant by philia. The Apostle John, for example, used the two words interchangeably in the several places he describes himself as the disciple Jesus loved. More than the word itself, it was the whole phrase that indicated a special bond: surely Jesus loved all his disciples in one sense, but John was special enough to eat next to Jesus, to go up mountains with him, and so on.

On the other hand, John does seem to differentiate and use these two words to distinguish depths of love in his account of a conversation between Jesus and Peter near the end of his gospel. Jesus first asks Peter twice if he has agape for Him, and Peter replies that he has philia for the Master. I think Peter was torn between considering the words equivalent and treating them as different. It seems he wasn’t ready to adopt the term Jesus used but perhaps hoped that his switch wouldn’t be noticed. Jesus next asks, though, if Peter has philia for Him, and John reports that Peter was grieved that Jesus put the question this way the third time. The context here makes philia sound like a weaker grade of love. (I have no idea how this conversation plays out in Aramaic, which may well have been the language actually used by the two speakers.)

Bible translations don’t always distinguish the words in this exchange; versions that use “love” throughout make it sound as though Peter felt distress simply because Jesus asked him three times. But I think Peter’s anxiety stemmed from the change of terminology. Dorothy Sayers agreed, and preserved the distinction when she presented the dialog in the last play of her cycle called The Man Born to Be King. But she also met the dilemma caused by the multifaceted twentieth-century English use of the word “love.” If she has Jesus ask first whether Peter loves him and has Peter respond that he likes Jesus, she risks the problem my younger self noticed: Peter’s response could sound stronger and more personal than the original question. And if she has Peter respond, “Lord, I’m your friend,” that problem only deepens. Her solution, as she explains in her explanatory preface to the plays, is actually to switch the traditional Greek meanings of the words. Jesus first asks if Peter is his friend, which sounds to us as though the Lord is asking for confession of a personal bond. But Peter can only respond with the generic “You know I love you.”

Just after finishing Sayers’s plays, I began Cicero’s On Friendship according to my reading schedule, and there again was the use of “friendship” as the highest form of love. Writing in Latin, where he can show that love (amor) and friendship (amicitia) have the same root, Cicero proceeds to describe friendship in a way that makes it sound astonishingly like Paul’s agape. Friendship involves complete accord. (Love does not insist on its own way.) Friendship involves mutual goodwill and affection. (Love is kind.) Friendship is an attraction of one virtuous person to another. (Love does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.) In friendships of people with differing status, the poorer or less powerful friend must not be envious. (Love is not jealous.) And the richer or more powerful friend must ignore the difference and treat the other as an equal. (Love is not boastful.) Finally, friendship means loyalty and constancy. (Love never ends.)

Friendship of this kind is indeed a rare, precious thing. Many relationships I’ve thought were friendships have come to an end over the years. Sometimes the fault lay with me, at other times with the other person, and at yet other times with both of us. Accord, mutual goodwill, virtue, lack of envy, and the like are indeed the signs, and constancy is indeed the proof of true friendship. Yet we use the word “friend” as casually as we do “love.” “Will you friend me on facebook?” means something about as shallow as “I love that pen.” So I have many friends (my computer screen says, in fact, that I have 522) but only a very few friends friends.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Great Conversations on Old Age

Mortimer Adler called the corpus of Great Books the “Great Conversation” about the grand issues and questions of life and our world. So I’m used to seeing the same topics coming up again and again in my ongoing attempt to give myself a liberal education. But rarely do I experience such direct interplay between two authors as I have this last week, reading both in Cicero and Boswell’s Life of Dr. Johnson about the subject of old age. Sometimes Johnson agrees with Cicero, but more often he departs from the Roman statesman’s views.

I’m now in Boswell’s wonderful account of 1778. Johnson is sixty-eight years old at this point, his writing has slowed down immensely, and he and Boswell have become close friends. So most of the text reports the lively, multifaceted conversations between these two, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, actor David Garrick, author Oliver Goldsmith, and other illustrious figures of the day. And Dr. Johnson, never without an opinion on any subject, has a lot to say about the senectitude that has overcome him slowly but surely. Although I’m absolutely positive the great lexicography had read Cicero’s essays, he doesn’t cite him by name in these conversations, but he certainly seems to have Cicero in mind.

In the first mention of the topic, Johnson sides with his predecessor. Cicero’s essay on old age delivers an unstinting encomium on the latter stage of life. Weakness, blindness, mental incapacity – all the complaints against old age, he says, are not the fault of age itself. Some people of advanced years don’t have any of these problems and find their dotage quite pleasant, while some young people do suffer these debilities. And with those two premises granted, we have to agree with his conclusion that old age itself isn’t a problem. Cicero even says that a person can deliberately avoid some of the problems associated with old age; a man can keep his mind sharp by exercising throughout his life. And Johnson agrees: “It is a man’s own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid in old age.”

Dr. Johnson had no special relish for the winter of life, though, and he leaves it to Boswell to agree with Cicero most of the time. “I value myself upon this,” Johnson says, “that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation.” Boswell’s philosophical reply: “But, Sir, . . . he who is never an old man, does not know the whole of human life; for old age is one of the divisions of it.”

In another conversation, Johnson disagrees with Cicero in his valuation of what might happen after death. Cicero says he is convinced that the soul is immortal, but observes that he doesn’t worry about the possibility of being wrong, since in that case, he won’t exist to regret his mistake and certainly won’t care about the skeptics having been proven right. Johnson, too, talks about this possibility. Some Christians of the last forty years have objected to John Lennon imagining there’s no Heaven, but the good Anglican Johnson and the good Quaker Mrs. Knowles had no qualms at all discussing the supposition. Mrs. Knowles opines that it is absurd to fear annihilation, “which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.” Johnson’s rejoinder: “It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.” I can’t entirely side with either statement, but I appreciate Johnson’s nuanced division of the question later in the conversation: “The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful.”