Monday, June 30, 2014

The Education of Ken Stephenson

Today marks the three-quarters line in my decade-long reading plan. On this last day of the sixth month of the eighth year, I’ve completed seven-and-a-half of the ten years of my self-assigned list of great works of literature. I’m still a little amazed that I’ve kept up with the pace for this long through changes of residence, illness, and family crises. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it when I started. But ninety months later, here I am right on schedule.

I’m reading Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV right now, so it provided the obvious content for today’s post. But as I contemplated sitting down to write, it occurred to me how appropriate this particular work is to a milestone moment in my program to educate myself in the classics. This play is the first of Shakespeare’s that I ever read and still one of my favorites. I learned a lot from that first encounter, and as I thought about describing the experience, the topic expanded in my mind to the history of my understanding of Shakespeare, then further to the place (or more precisely, lack of place) of the Bard in my formal educational experience, and quickly yet again to the informal education of my early years.

I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, so my informal education consisted mostly of television watching. And I’m not talking about anything supposedly good for young brains like Sesame Street. Since Shakespeare made only one infamous appearance in my public-school education, my first and most influential instructors on this greatest figure in the history of English drama included Flipper, Gilligan’s Island, Peabody’s Improbable History, and The Andy Griffith Show. And for the most part, to these teachers, Shakespeare only served as a source of fodder for jokes. Andy famously misquoted Romeo and Juliet in his down-home retelling of the story of the star-crossed lovers. Mr. Peabody tried to get a fellow with no ear for poetry to change his original name for that same play: Romeo and Zelda. And Gilligan staged a hilariously disastrous musical version of Hamlet. I loved all these parodies. But in the first nineteen years of my life, I never set about the task of reading the words, words, words of Shakespeare themselves, confident that I wouldn’t enjoy them. My reluctance – typical for kids at that time, I believe – was both summed up and encouraged by Flipper’s pal Bud in two words: “Shakespeare! Yuck!”

But by my senior year of college, I had changed my outlook. In Intro to Drama, I finally read, among other things, 1 Henry IV by William Shakespeare. I learned that Shakespeare wrote histories to demonstrate Elizabeth’s right to the English throne. I learned about Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II’s crown. I learned what a dramatic foil is. I learned that even though my first page of Shakespeare took an hour to read, it gets faster. And I learned that I liked it.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Do I Want More of Kant?

OK, so a week ago I posted that I needed a mental vacation in some literary sea air, and this week I pick up Immanuel Kant?! Thus I did, dear reader. And the funny thing is that I actually understood it – well, understood it as well as I can understand a philosopher that puzzles philosophers.

I shouldn’t be so surprised that I essentially grasped Kant’s message. I’d read The Critique of Judgement (as Irish translator James Creed Meredith spells it) before, and my copy in Mortimer Adler’s Great Books set has my marks and notes in it; so that made it easier. And this work isn’t, I believe, the toughest Kantian nut to crack. Kant explains the place of this book in his grand scheme in this way. The Critique of Pure Reason explains knowledge of things in the world, which, as the Prussian philosopher would have it, are all phenomena: objects of the senses or imagination, not things-in-themselves. His Critique of Practical Reason, on the other hand, pinpoints maxims, which we accept as things in themselves but can never have a sensation of, can never imagine in a mental picture or sound. Imagination without understanding, or understanding without imagination. But the mind, says Kant, also has a mode of operation lying, as it were, in the middle of the other two, one that connects imagination and understanding, and this is the faculty of judgment (as American blogger Ken Stephenson spells it). Now why Kant sometimes equates “reason” with “understanding” and sometimes distinguishes them, I can’t explain. And why in this schematic explanation he associates understanding only with practical reason and not with pure reason, I can’t explain. But Kant describes the act of aesthetic judgment as a free play of imagination and understanding, so he needs those words to go with those other two books in order to present a coherent system.

All right, here’s another connection between imagination and understanding: I can’t imagine how anyone could understand what I just wrote. Maybe this paragraph will be more lucid if I talk about my Kant-influenced view of aesthetic judgment. Like Kant, I begin to define an aesthetic reaction – a judgment that something is beautiful – by separating it from any reaction that involves personal interest. Suppose someone gives me a painting of purple flowers in a vase. If I like it because I think I can get a hundred million dollars for it in an auction, I’m not responding to its beauty in a purely aesthetic way. But if I just like looking at Van Gogh’s Irises, then I respond to it as a work of art: I am exercising aesthetic judgment.

Much clearer.

Like Kant, I also distinguish between liking something beautiful and liking something agreeable. But I don’t know that the dividing line is as clear to me as it is to him. If the pleasure lies in the sensation itself, neither Kant nor I would call the object beautiful. A back rub, for instance, feels great, but I would call it a work of art only in a metaphorical way. On the other hand, I think of it as metaphorical to say a beautiful piece of music soothes the ears. The pleasure isn’t exactly in the sensation of hearing itself. I enjoy music because something in my mind engages the sounds that enter my ears. That might actually even be my way of saying that my pleasure in listening to Chopin is a free play between imagination and understanding.

But Kant distinguishes the beautiful and the agreeable in several more ways that don't all make sense to me. For instance, he claims that agreeable things always come with a desire for more. I can follow him that far; I will always accept another back rub, while I don’t feel any desire for some artist to paint Irises again. But where Kant says that beauty lies only in form – that colors have no beauty but are only agreeable like the back rub – I begin to part ways with him. Take away the color from Irises, and nothing remains to enjoy. It isn’t a line drawing filled in with purple and green that can be taken away. And even if it were, the line drawing would consist of the colors black and white, so I still wouldn’t be able to enjoy the design aesthetically according to Kant.

As I think about it more, I might not even agree with Kant that a desire for more precludes any judgment of beauty. I consider films works of art, yet I deeply desire another Firefly movie.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sea Air

When a guy makes a ten-year reading plan, he has to accept that his mind won’t be fully ready for deep engagement with books day after day for 3653 straight turns of the sun. A year or two before I started this blog, a family crisis left me barely able to follow classic Spider-Man comics. My notes on The Plan from that time are very sketchy, and I remember virtually nothing about some of the listed books I read during that time. But I kept reading, both Great Books and Spider-Man (which is pretty great in its own way), and I’m glad I did.

This month I’m mentally exhausted from some major life transitions and some grueling work. (I’m well over the upper threshold on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale.) I found Middlemarch too taxing, but I want to keep up with the list, just as I did several years ago. So I set Eliot aside about halfway through and picked up Patrick O’Brian instead. In one way, The Commodore and The Yellow Admiral have provided the perfect remedy: volumes 17 and 18 in a series that I love, populated with familiar characters that I don’t have to figure out. But O’Brian doesn’t write prose to be instantly understood, filled as it is with jargon, mysteries, and unfamiliar cultural detail. On the other hand, those very factors play a huge part in drawing me back to Captain Jack Aubrey and polymath Stephen Maturin. So I’m just sailing along with them, following where the trade winds lead, not worrying too much about understanding what I don’t understand, and instead just taking it all in as atmosphere. In fact, a couple weeks of sea air is probably exactly what I need to recover some strength of mind.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Little Erudition Emollit Mores

Between the complex sentence structure, the high vocabulary, and the Latin quotations, George Eliot’s Middlemarch displays a fair amount of erudition. The Latin is especially interesting in a book written by a woman in which many of the male characters (and some of the female characters, if we are to take their talk at face value) believe a woman incapable of mastering Latin. Perhaps this point alone led Mary Ann Evans to write under a man’s name.

Here’s a little quiz based on some of the words and phrases, English and Latin, from the first half of the novel. Using each item from the numbered list in turn, fill the first blank of the following sentence, and then find the phrase from the lettered list that best completes the sentence.

A person who ________________ is ________________.

For the first blank:
1. is a custos rotulorum
2. is a nullifidian
3. is varium et mutabile semper
4. pretermits
5. is a hoyden
6. is nullo aevo periturus
7. omne tulit punctum
8. trenchant
9. emollit mores

For the second blank:
a. an officer of the county
b. boisterous
c. famous
d. fickle
e. perfectly persuasive
f. reticent
g. vigorously articulate
h. without religious faith
i. liberally educated and perhaps knows some Ovid


1-a. The phrase means “guardian of the rolls” and is used for the now ceremonial head of a county in various parts of Britain.
2-h. From nulla fides, “no faith.”
4-f. To pretermit is to fail to say or do something.
5-b. Apparently only girls can be hoydens.
6-c. Literally “never to die in any age.”
7-e. Horace said that the person who mixes the useful and the sweet omne tulit punctum: has carried every point.
8-g. Notice, the trenchant person doesn’t necessarily carry omne punctum.
9-i. Ovid actually said that the liberal education itself, not the person, emollit mores: softens manners or sweetens the character.

By the way, how anyone could ever have believed that girls are incapable of mastering Latin is beyond me. Half of all Romans, after all, were women.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Empathizing with Calvin

I don’t have a lot to say about Jean Calvin this time around. His Institutes of the Christian Religion makes for a generally unpleasant experience for me each year, and I’d rather not dwell on it for long. But I must say that I appreciate the very difficult position he was in, a strait that probably fully justifies his dour truculence. On the one side, he was beset by the Catholics, who were “superstitious and lascivious devil-worshipers.” On the other side, the Anabaptists assailed him with their “malicious perversions of scripture.” Calvin quotes Michael Servetus extensively in the ten percent of the tome I read last week, and I can see from these quotations why Calvin’s Geneva government had to execute Servetus: he had biblical arguments for adult baptism. (In this passage, Calvin doesn’t display any distaste for Servetus’s non-Trinitarian theology – small potatoes, I guess.) “Repent and be baptized” doesn’t mention infants, so of course it’s clear to anyone with any hold on reason, Calvin points out, that this call applies only to those capable of repentance and so has nothing to say to infants, who clearly should receive the sacrament. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, occupies a completely different situation. Paul’s injunction to Christians that they examine themselves before partaking clearly applies only to those capable of examination and so has nothing to say to infants, who obviously are not to receive the sacrament. In one case the lack of mention of babes obviously indicates their inclusion, while in the other the lack of mention obviously indicates their exclusion. The difference is so clear, even Servetus should have seen it. But, alas. Off with his head.

As understandable as it all is, though, I still didn’t enjoy reading in the Institutes this year. But I want to have read all of it, and just one annual assignment remains. So I’ll keep going. And I suppose I’ll blog about it once more next summer. Until then, if you, my reader, have any inclination to click the comment link and scold me for my observations today, I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve just received enough abuse from Calvin’s pen, having been called in the last week “rash,” “childish,” “frenzied,” “malicious,” “blind,” “barbarian,” “foolish,” and “depraved.”

[Note added in July: After puzzling over whether Ann Coulter delivered her diatribe on soccer with tongue in cheek, I'm concerned now that people won't discern the prominent bulge in my own cheek. I don't, in fact, empathize with Calvin in his severe judgmentalism. I don't believe Catholics are devil-worshipers. And I don't think Michael Servetus needed to be executed for holding his theology, any more than I think Ann Coulter needs to be executed for not hating soccer – or for loving soccer – or for whatever she thinks about soccer, no matter how indiscernible her opinion may be.]

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hypothetical Speculation

In my last section of Aquinas for 2014, I encountered the Doctor engaging in some hypothetical speculation. The Incarnation is a subject of great mystery. How could and did God take on human nature? The details lie as far out of reach of the human intellect as the Japanese shore to the eyesight of a boater sailing off Catalina. But just as the Californian can point the way to Japan without seeing it, so Aquinas can speak up to the limits of our comprehension on the union of God and Man. But it seems to me he goes still farther, even admitting at one point after arguing one particular doctrine that various opinions exist among the learned faithful.

Some things the Christian can state with certainty: God did not change when He took human form; human nature changed. Broken humanity needed the Incarnation as the means of restoration; only God could bring the remedy, and only a man could satisfy justice. As a man, Christ had a true body and a soul, and as God, his soul was perfect.

Aquinas also addresses some issues raised by many of the early heresies in this section and clarifies them for me by bringing them together in this context. The Word of God assumed human nature, not a human. In other words, God didn’t pick a child named Jesus and then do something to him; Jesus was divine and human from the moment of conception. His body was not imaginary, as Manes taught. (This is the Manes whose teaching Augustine followed for a while before becoming a Christian.) His body consisted of earthly elements; it was not a heavenly body, as Valentine taught (the Gnaostic heretic, not the saint). He did not take on a body only, as Arius taught.

But then Aquinas goes further by delving into hypothetical ground. Would Christ have come to earth if people had not sinned? No, says Aquinas, there would have been no need. Could any of the three Divine Persons – even the Father or the Holy Spirit – have assumed human nature? Yes. Could more than one Divine Person have taken on human nature at the same time? Yes. Could one Divine Person have taken on two human natures? Yes. I don’t know what Thomas gets out of establishing that last one. But the other tenets allow him to praise the fitness of the Word, and the Word only, having assumed nature. As He through whom all things were created, the Word saw his human creation fall. So his Incarnation allows the Craftsman (Aquinas’s word) to restore his own work. Wisdom is ascribed to the second Person especially, so his Incarnation allows Wisdom to complete the destiny of rational creatures. And He is Knowledge, who in restoring humanity restores the race that fell by seeking knowledge. These conclusions inspire me, so to my view, the hypothetical speculation was completely justified.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Networks of Webs

Retiring, packing, house-selling, and house-hunting have been taking up a lot of time lately. It takes a lot of work to quit working! I’m dismayed at how slow my progress through Middlemarch has been. But I’m about a third of the way in and thoroughly enjoying it. It’s dense in language and in subject, and that contributes to my snail’s pace. But the density also gives me plenty to think about.

People write about the web of society in Eliot. And she does call society a web in Middlemarch. But that’s not the only thickly interconnected system she refers to. She (or her characters) also calls the business world a machine and the human body a network of tissues. Everything finds its way into these networks of webs, and so everything ends up connected to everything else. So the novel itself and its topics form yet another web.

Take beauty and plainness. The narration sets pretty Rosamond Vincy and flat-faced Mary Garth together and compares their looks several times. Hearty James Chettam and sallow Edward Casaubon provide another example. But then what does the outward appearance suggest about the inward person? Some characters judge others by their looks, which brings up the topic of assumption and interpretation. In a different arena, Dorothea Brooke talks about her struggles interpreting art, wishing it were pretty, but usually finding it ugly. Other arts – literature and music – find their way into the story, especially with regard to education. Some of the men believe that girls are only fit to learn music and such things, but Dorothea would like to learn Latin. Languages then play a part in the discussions about Casaubon’s study of myths. The study of myths touches upon religion, which in turn brushes up against business, love, and politics. The election of officers for the hospital has its political side, too, and health care brings in the subject of old and young in its comparison of physicians from different generations. And so the narrative thread goes, on and on, twisting itself into a knot. Whether the book ends up as a Celtic knot or a Gordian knot, the next couple of weeks will tell.