Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Bird’s-Eye View

I must confess that I’m having trouble deciding where to start this post. My motivation is a sense that I’ve gained a bird’s-eye view of the history of philosophy. But how does one begin to describe a bird’s-eye view? Which point on the horizon does one choose as the beginning? Maybe the random center over which the bird’s eye currently soars is the best beginning. The other day, I read a reference in Locke to Hobbes. Now a link between two seventeenth-century philosophers doesn’t exactly constitute a panorama. But that link made me think of the references to Locke that I read a few months ago in Thomas Reid’s writing. And then I thought of both philosophers referring to Aristotle and the medieval Aristotelians, and something like a great vista started to open up before my imagination. My thoughts next flew to Husserl, another philosopher whose work I read earlier in 2014, and his response to Hume, who lived at the time and in the same country as Reid, who disagreed with Locke, who followed up on some epistemological issues set by Descartes, who did much to overturn the reign of the medieval schoolmen, who revived Aristotle, whose concept of ideas opposed that of Plato, who learned from Socrates. Now that’s a panorama.

I wrote a few days ago about my sense of accomplishment on unpacking the Great Books set. Yes, every empty box brings a sense of accomplishment these days. But I meant specifically a satisfaction in having read and understood all of these great thinkers’ works. I set out twenty years ago to give myself a liberal education in classic literature, history, philosophy, and science, and I’ve succeeded beyond all expectations.

The sense of achievement becomes even stronger when I find that as I read one author, I’m critiquing his ideas according to what I’ve read in another. Reid’s arguments resolved a problem that had nagged me since the 1980s when I first read John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This time through the key passages in Locke, I find myself wanting to stop him at the very beginning and say, “Your thought of a table is not a thought about an idea in your head. You’ve added a needless step in your model. The thought and the idea are the same, and they are about the table.”

And then I start wrestling with a new problem: if I want to stop Locke at his very first premise, why do I keep reading? I don’t read philosophy just to know what a given philosopher said; I want to know the Truth about Things. I don’t just want to learn about the philosopher; I want to learn from the philosopher. So if the philosopher’s first premise is wrong, I could be tempted to say that the rest of the book doesn’t have any truth for me to learn and set it aside. But Locke doesn’t try to follow a tight logical argument, as his contemporary Spinoza did. It seems to me that Locke has a lot of true and useful ideas to share that don’t depend on that first premise. So I keep reading, and as I do, I learn.

I’ve been in this place before. I can’t buy Marx’s first premise, either: the value of a commodity does not reside wholly or even primarily in the value of the labor that went into its production. Someone has to admire and want the item’s beauty or usefulness. But Marx gets around his first mistake, and so did I when I read Capital. And I’m glad I did. For that matter, Spinoza slips up pretty early on, but I still like a lot of his conclusions.

I’m only a little bird flying over a great land. But the skies are clear, and the view is magnificent.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gibbon and Christianity

I wish I had more to say about today’s topic. I really do. But moving is a time-consuming and exhausting endeavor and doesn’t leave a lot of mental energy for deep thinking. What can I say? A ten-year reading plan is bound to see a few casualties along the way. I certainly enjoyed reading 150 more dense Britannica-Great-Books pages of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; his subject matter, historical methodology, and prose all display the highest quality. And I love the way Gibbon interjects himself and makes patent the context in which he writes, unlike some writers of history who attempt to keep their narrators hidden, supposedly to lend a more objective tone to their works. But, enjoy it as I did, I didn’t have time to take notes. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to mull it over, and I don’t remember as much of it as I’d like only three weeks after I finished this year’s installment. Two lessons here: (1) Reading is better when you can take notes, think about it, or talk about it with a friend. (2) Reading without those opportunities is still better than not reading.

Another reason for not saying much is that the chapters on Christianity and Constantine have a long reception history, and I just don’t know enough to contribute much responsibly. Contemporary Christians took offense at what they perceived as a negative light cast on the history of the Faith, Gibbon defended himself, and people have been debating the problem ever since.

For my part, the attack didn’t seem directed toward Christianity so much as toward bad histories of Christianity. Gibbon had a few debunking tasks in mind. First, he wanted to show that persecution of Christians was less vehement and less widespread than popular imagination supposes. His reasoning based on the documentary evidence concludes that the Romans mostly tried to be lenient and ended up executing only a few thousand Christians over the course of three centuries. Second, Gibbon wished to demonstrate that Constantine was not the angelic hero of the tale, converting to Christ at a young age and then making the world safe for Christians and Christianity. As it turns out, Constantine waited until his death bed to be baptized, apparently because he wanted to leave himself the option to kill family members who rose up as rivals – an option he seems to have exercised on multiple occasions. Finally, and conversely, Gibbon intended to show that Julian the Apostate (an epithet he doesn’t use) wasn’t the evil villain of the story. Instead, he portrays Julian as the wise philosopher-king.

As for Christianity itself as a faith, Gibbon often refers to its truth and the sacredness of its teachings. Do I see his tongue protruding in his cheek in some of these passages? I think so. But I also know that Samuel Johnson accepted Gibbon in his literary club. This fall when I again join the good Dr. Johnson for dinner and conversation at the Mitre, I’ll have to pay special attention to Mr. Gibbon’s contributions, Johnson’s reactions, and Boswell’s commentary on it all.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Four Years Ago

Well, actually four years and about three weeks ago. That’s when I started this blog. I haven’t had as much time to keep up with it this year, especially in the last two months; I don’t remember a summer as busy as this one has been. But I’ve kept up with my reading, and I’m on track to finish Year 8 on schedule. That’s right. A few hundred boxes, a move, a new job, and a new financial situation can’t keep me from the books when they’re so good. Over the last twelve months, I’ve read my favorite Charles Williams novel, my favorite Charles Dickens novel, the most personally relevant chapter yet from William James, and a classic medieval adventure that has occupied a lofty throne in my heart since I was eight years old – not to mention (a phrase that always introduces a lie!) Plato, Shelby Foote, Aquinas, and the Arabian Nights. Come to think of it, the list is my Scheherazade: keeps me coming back for more day after day.

I haven’t neglected the blog entirely, of course. And neither have you. exlibrismagnis now averages over 900 hits a month. Here’s a baker’s dozen of favorite posts from the last fifty-two weeks:

Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?
What Makes a Good Gentleman
Many More Dimensions
A Great Book that Hasn't Been Written
Game Ideas
Paying Attention to William James
More on Attention
Malory and Adventure
A Tale of Two Discoveries
A Tale of Two Mysteries
A Tale of Two Meanings
Life Imitates Foote
Where Have All the Theorems Gone?

I’ve also listed some of my favorite posts from the entire four-year run to the right, just below the archive and just above the labels.

I unpacked the Britannica Great Books set the other day to put it in its new place in our new home, and it amazed me. Or maybe I should say I amazed myself. I looked at the names of the all the authors, and they seemed like old friends. This crazy plan has really worked. I set out almost twenty years ago to give myself the liberal education I wish my schools had given me, and I think I’ve really done it.

Two more years to go, though. Next August, when I write a post called “Five Years Ago,” maybe I’ll provide links to posts about Phantastes or Confessio Amantis or the Baghavad Gita or the poetry of Tennyson. Oh, my Scheherazade!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Suspended in Moby-Dick

After a couple weeks of moving, traveling, and living without internet (except when we remember to take devices to restaurants), I’m back to blogging. But while exlibrismagnis has been suspended, my reading has continued. My schedule for the year brought me to two lengthy things just at the right time: for about three weeks now, I’ve been reading a little each day in Moby-Dick and in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Actually, saying my blogging has been suspended makes me think of something I read just yesterday morning in Moby-Dick. While a great whale head is suspended from the ship (I choose not to be embarrassed that after reading most of this book in the last several days, I can’t remember the proper terminology for the structure and machinery that hold up the prize), Melville suspends the action, like a character in a sci-fi movie walking through a paused scene in a hologram: “We must let it continue to hang there a while till we can get a chance to attend to it.” A couple of chapters later, a second whale’s head has balanced the first, hanging off the other side of the Pequod, while the narration describes it in present tense. “Here, now,” says Ishmael, “are two great whales, laying their heads together.” Again the action stops while he describes for the reader the anatomy of the heads of whales.

Plot really isn’t all that important to Melville in his magnum opus. Ishmael decides to go whaling and signs on to a ship. Captain Ahab shows up. They set sail, and Ahab announces that he’s going after the great white whale that gave him a peg leg. They catch some whales and have parleys with a few other ships. Then, in the last few chapters, they engage Moby-Dick. Those are the essentials. Along the way we get the histories of Nantucket and of whaling, a taxonomy of cetaceans, lessons in anatomy, descriptions of various kinds of rope, observations on religion and anthropology, and many other seemingly nonfictional essays. Melville justifies his rambling method by noting that “productive subjects” produce chapters and subchapters as a trunk produces branches and branches produce twigs. But surely the branches occupy the center of the author’s heart, not the trunk. When Ishmael is descibing the method of removing the oil from the whale’s head in expository prose and then says, “Tashtego mounts aloft” (again in present, the tense of demonstration; not the past tense of pseudo-history), it seems to me that the action of this character from the “novel” only serves as an example: a prop or visual aid for the lecture Melville really wants to give.

I suppose these explanatory digressions (granting Ishmael’s more standard implication that the fictional portions represent the main flow of the narrative and the nonfiction the digressions) form the basis of the general opinion that Moby-Dick is a dry, boring book. But I love the scarcity of plot. If I can compare the sublime with the ridiculous (you can decide which is which), Moby-Dick reminds me a lot of Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon rides to school, buys a suit, talks with Pedro, draws pictures of animals, tries to travel in time, watches football videos with his uncle. None of this is plot; it could all happen in almost any order. If plot means a series of events one of which affects another, you could say that the dance contest near the end provides some plot. But with almost no dramatic drive, the other 90% of the film succeeds famously as fascinating, thoroughly entertaining character development.

On second thought, maybe I should concede the occasional importance of plot. If I had to identify an essential difference between Napoleon Dynamite and Moby-Dick, I’d say this: I can live without the dance contest, but I pretty much need Ahab to encounter the whale that one last time.