Friday, March 23, 2018

Aquinas for Lent XXXIII

We worship God by external sacrifices and gifts, not for His own profit, but for that of ourselves and our neighbor. For He needs not our sacrifices, but wishes them to be offered to Him, in order to arouse our devotion and to profit our neighbor. Hence mercy, whereby we supply others' defects is a sacrifice more acceptable to Him, as conducing more directly to our neighbor's well-being, according to Hebrews 13:16: "Do not forget to do good and to impart, for by such sacrifices God's favor is obtained."

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.30.4 ad 1

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Jottings on the Aleatory Aspect of Art

The works of J. R. R. Tolkien are a kind of study of art, and one of the recurring art-relevant themes throughout the corpus is that of the work of skill that skill alone cannot capture. Fëanor is a mighty craftsman; his greatest works are the Silmarils. But the Silmarils, while they cannot be made without the skill of Fëanor, are not reducible to it. After Fëanor has made the Silmarils, nobody can make them again, not even Fëanor. At an even higher level, Yvanna, having made the Trees can never make them again. Any artist of experience, at least if they challenge themselves, will at some point have the experience of the thing they make -- it is truly a result of their skill -- that is, paradoxically, beyond their skill -- even with their skill they could not have guaranteed it. Even the best artists find sometimes that the product of their talent exceeds their talent to produce, and that the work of their skill exceeds their skill to make.

In all productive arts, skill is not the only factor involved in the result. There is 'the Muse'; it comes and goes, whatever it might be, that aspect that sharpens skill, however briefly, to an acute point. There is the material, which has its own constraints and limitations and can resist or facilitate the work. There is also pure aleation, the luck of the art, things just coincidentally falling the right way, a way that could not have been guaranteed or sometimes even hoped-for. Skillful Fëanor, using material of unique kind (the pure light of the Trees, that, as it happened, would soon run out), driven by the fire within, one day in pursuing his craft, was 'on a roll', as we say, everything falling just right, and all these together made the Silmarils, which could never be made again.

It has been noted that in art avant-gardism and kitsch, although often enemies, are in a sense cousins, because they deviate in analogous ways from art proper -- focused wholly on making the thing worth making -- as art-imitating approaches, as quasi-art, as art-mimicries. While art is focused on the work of art, kitsch attempts to mimic the effects of works of art. Joe Carter had a widely read post discussing Thomas Kinkade's painting, which is essentially a discussion of Kinkade's descent into kitsch; Kinkade is a painter of extraordinary talent, but as time goes on the paintings become less exquisite as paintings and more focused on viewer-response. Kinkade had a great talent for painting light-effects; these were part of what really drew people to his paintings. And over time, the paintings increasingly become about the light-effects, to the point of almost exceeding caricature; he became not merely a painter of light, but the Painter of Light (TM), and as Carter notes, his work became derivative and imitative because of it -- although in Kinkade's case it was being derivative and imitative of himself.

Avant-gardism works the same way, but whereas kitsch tries to imitate the effects of the work of art as if they were separable from the integral character of the work of art itself, avant-gardism tries to imitate the disposition of the artist. This is why the twentieth-century saw the explosion of so many forms of 'modern' and 'postmodern' and other kinds of art: it's actually a proliferation of approaches, and much of the history of twentieth-century art can be seen as an almost combinatorial survey of the different ways you can put artistic styles and techniques together. Twentieth-century artists were often less interested in making art than in making up new arts; hence the proliferation of 'manifestos' and 'movements': the shift from focusing on the beautiful to focusing on the new led to an explosion of attempts to try out anything -- and it did end up being just about anything -- that would be different enough to get something new. And thus avant-gardisms tend to isolate out elements involved in making the integral work of art, obsessively trying to purify them into some kind of untainted, or at least infinite, state.

The avant-gardism most associated with the attempt to isolate the aleatory aspect of art is Dada; most work in Dada is almost obsessively concerned with the accidents arising from juxtaposition, the chance felicities, the arbitrary division. Take, for instance, decoupé, also known as the cut-up technique for making a poem. You take a newspaper article, cut it up into words and phrases, put them in a bag; shake to mix them up; and then construct the poem by drawing out the words at random. This is not some mere party game; people often fail to remember the last lines of Tristan Tzara's "How to Make a Dadaist Poem" (Dada Manifesto VIII), which first laid out the technique:

The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

It's an effort at the isolation of a pure poetry-insofar-as-it-is-chance-recombination. And this is a genuine part of poetry: most poems involve some aspect of it, and sometimes it is an important aspect, as a chance recombination becomes a seed crystal for something greater. It's not intended as itself a kind of meaninglessness. William S. Burroughs, who was the major popularizer of the technique occasionally noted that what he liked about cut-up technique was that it was like life itself: your life is in some sense a cut-up -- you experience this, and then this other thing, and then that's interrupted by this, and so forth. It's all randomly divided, as different things end up coinciding or interrupting. And yet it's not just a heap of things: your life does not go in any rigid order, it is full of chances and coincidences and random events, but it holds together. There's a meaning in all this chance and randomness that you're not putting there. This is part of art, like it is part of life.

Or take the dadaist sound poem -- for instance, what is perhaps the greatest sound poem, "Karawane", by Hugo Ball:

by Hugo Ball

14th july 1916

jolifanto bambla ô falli bambla
grossiga m'pfa habla horem
égiga goramen
higo bloiko russula huju
hollaka hollala
anlogo bung
blago bung
blago bung
bosso fataka
ü üü ü
schampa wulla wussa ólobo
hej tatta gôrem
eschige zunbada
wulubu ssubudu uluw ssubudu
tumba ba-umf

Much Dadaist sound poetry finds its root in noisy places with a lot of music, and arises out of the chancy, accidental juxtapositions you get in such places. This gives us the sound-aspect of the poem; Ball's poem was originally written in a different font for each line, which gives a chance difference of look and suggestion to the sounds; and then, of course, sound poetry is to be performed, and there are the chance differences arising from the performance. All of these make the poem to be in some sense meaningless; but the whole point of Dada is that these kinds of meaninglessness are not mere meaninglessness, but actually part of what we harness for meaning in the first place. There is, so to speak, a kind of meaningfulness of meaninglessness interacting with meaninglessness. Change the chance differences, you change the meaning. Compare and contrast two performances of the poem, first by Trio Exvoco:

Second, Marie Osmond giving a looser and more dramatic performance, starting at about 1:37:

The differences in how the poem is recited make a difference, each giving a different sort of meaning-likeness to it. This is operative in every poem. This aspect is usually overwhelmed by other features of the poem, but it can still play a big role, as when different accents change what rhymes or the speed at which you go through a poem will change where the pauses and stresses are. Likewise, the title changes things -- if you treat 'Karawane' as a nonsense word that is part of the poem, as Osmond does, you get one reading of the poem; but Ball was German, and 'Karawane' is the German word for a caravan, usually a desert caravan, although an early alternate title for the poem was "Elefantenkarawane" -- and many performances of the poem attempt to evoke either the German-ish-ness of the poem (reading the words in a more German way, as opposed, for instance, to Osmond's American pronunciation) or the evocation of elephants slowly marching, or both. It also makes a difference whether the famous Ball costumes are involved (Osmond at least gives a representation of them so that people can imagine it while listening if they want) and the context (a vocal performance, which will be focused on the performance and will tend to be appreciated by people with a background of a certain type, or presentation of it as something interesting to a television audience almost all of whom would originally have been getting their very first exposure to anything really like it). All of this will depend on chance: Who picks up the poem to read it, and where, and how, and why? Different juxtapositions give different kinds of suggestiveness.

The chancy character of it is, again, not a void of meaninglessness; it is chance, but meaningful, like a coin toss to decide which way to go, or like spontaneous foolery (to which Ball sometimes compared it). And this is the aleatory aspect of art; Dada is not inventing it but drawing out something that all art contains and focusing almost obsessively on it. And at least some Dada is interesting because chance sometimes does give you the splendid thing, something as good as skill could get you, or even, at times better.

These points, of course, can be generalized to any matter of skill, mutatis mutandis. Part of any skill is handling aleation, and chance contributes its share to the result.

Aquinas for Lent XXXII

Three things are required to be a disciple. The first is understanding, to grasp the words of the teacher: "Are you also still without understanding?" (Mt 15:16). But it is only Christ who can open the ears of the understanding: "Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures" (Lk 24:45); "The Lord opened my ears" (Is 50:5). Secondly, a disciple needs to assent, so as to believe the doctrine of his teacher, for "The disciple is not above his teacher" (Lk 6:40), and thus he should not contradict him: "do not speak against the truth in any way" (Sir 4:30). And Isaiah continues in the same verse, "I do not resist." Thirdly, a disciple needs to be stable, in order to persevere. As we read above: "From this time on, many of his disciples turned back, and no longer walked with him" (6:67); and Isaiah adds: "I did not turn back" (Is 50:5). But it is a greater thing to know the truth, since this is the end of the disciple.

[St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 6-12, Larcher, tr., CUA Press (Washington DC: 2010), p.124.]

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Aquinas for Lent XXXI

Now every one, as a matter of fact, loves his own life, but some love it absolutely, without qualification, and others love it partially, in a qualified way. To love someone is to will good to that person; so, to love one's own life is to will good to it. Therefore one who wills what is good without qualification to his own life, loves it unqualifiedly; while one who wills his life some partial good loves it in a qualified way. Now the unqualified goods of life are those which make a life good, namely, the highest good, which is God. Thus, one who wills the divine and spiritual good to his life, loves it unqualifiedly; while one who wills it earthly goods, such as riches, honors and pleasures, and things of that sort, loves it in a qualified way.

[St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 6-12, Larcher & Weisheipl, trs., Catholic University of America Press (Washington, DC: 2010) p. 279.]

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #42: Face au drapeau

The carte de visite received that day, June 15, 189—, by the director of the establishment of Healthful House was a very neat one, and simply bore, without escutcheon or coronet, the name:


Below this name, in a corner of the card, the following address was written in lead pencil:

“On board the schooner Ebba, anchored off New-Berne, Pamlico Sound.”

The capital of North Carolina—one of the forty-four states of the Union at this epoch—is the rather important town of Raleigh, which is about one hundred and fifty miles in the interior of the province. It is owing to its central position that this city has become the seat of the State legislature, for there are others that equal and even surpass it in industrial and commercial importance, such as Wilmington, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Edenton, Washington, Salisbury, Tarborough, Halifax, and New-Berne. The latter town is situated on estuary of the Neuse River, which empties itself into Pamlico Sound, a sort of vast maritime lake protected by a natural dyke formed by the isles and islets of the Carolina coast.

Face au drapeau, or Facing the Flag, is not one of Verne's better known works, but it has a great deal to recommend it. It is a tale of mystery and espionage, of piracy and patriotism, of powerful missiles and submarine boats. There are a number of ways, too, in which one can clearly see that Verne is experimenting a bit with his writing -- for instance, while the frame is third-person, much of the tale is first-person from an active narrator who only gradually unravels the mystery in which he finds himself, and as the tale progresses, it shifts from a first-person recent-past narrative (a journal) to a first-person immediate-present narrative (notes taken as things happen). At least as far as I could tell from the English translation, this deliberate narrative shifting is done in a skillful manner that heightens the urgency of the tale as things come to a head.

Thomas Roch is a brilliant inventor with a long string of successes, and he has come up with one of his greatest: the fulgurator, a weapon that could give a nation dominance on land and sea. However, he has become bitter at what he sees as people unfairly taking advantage of his inventions to profit themselves, and at what he regards as a general lack of appreciation, so when he approaches the French government, he demands a very high price, and, what is more, refuses to demonstrate the weapon until he is paid, and stubbornly refuses to see the unreasonableness of this. The French break off negotiations. Feeling betrayed, Roch turns his back on the French flag and offers his invention first to the Germans, who don't think they need the help of a Frenchman, and then to the more practical English, who hear him out but also turn him down. Increasingly sour on the world and emotionally unstable, Roch approaches the even more practical Americans who, recognizing that he is not quite right in the head, seize him and put him in a mental institution, the Healthful House, until he becomes more sane and amenable to negotiation -- an action that probably not accidentally also keeps him from approaching any other governments with the weapon. A French engineer named Simon Hart hears about the situation, and so, under an assumed name, gets himself hired at Healthful House to keep an eye on Roch and make sure that the fulgurator is not used against French interests. But other people have also heard about the situation, and see all too well the potential....

The book, interestingly, led to a lawsuit; Eugène Turpin, the inventor of the explosive melinite, sued Verne for defamation on the ground that the crazy Roch was obviously a representation of Turpin himself (who had been thrown in prison on accusations that he was trying to sell to foreign powers). Turpin lost the lawsuit, in part due to Verne's brilliant lawyer, Raymond Poincaré, who later became President of France, but it was not an unreasonable conclusion. Verne at several points does refer to Turpin's inventions. And while Turpin could not have known it, Roch was indeed inspired by Turpin's case; in his correspondence with his brother Paul, Verne refers to Roch as "le Turpin".

Aquinas for Lent XXX

As may be gathered from the words of Dionysius (Div. Nom. iv), beauty or comeliness results from the concurrence of clarity and due proportion. For he states that God is said to be beautiful, as being "the cause of the harmony and clarity of the universe." Hence the beauty of the body consists in a man having his bodily limbs well proportioned, together with a certain clarity of color. On like manner spiritual beauty consists in a man's conduct or actions being well proportioned in respect of the spiritual clarity of reason.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.145.2

Monday, March 19, 2018

Appeal to the Stone

As I have previously noted, 'The theory of fallacies is merely partially systematized folklore; as one would expect from folklore, it is a weird brew of logical tidbits, practical advice, ethical admonition, historical detritus of exploded or doubtful theories, things people thought clever or neat at some point, and misunderstandings.' One of the interesting things about it is seeing how different fallacies -- or more often, pseudo-fallacies -- emerge into common discourse.

I recently came across an attribution of the fallacy of the 'appeal to the stone'. It's an interesting example of how these things are born. The original idea is well known:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

Any Berkeley scholar will note that Boswell and Johnson seem to have misunderstood Berkeley's claim, although in a way that was usually done. (Thus Jonathan Swift, who was Berkeley's friend, is said to have played the practical joke of telling his servants to leave the door locked when Berkeley came to call, because the door was only in Berkeley's mind.) Berkeley, in fact, would arguably agree with Johnson on the key point. But it's not a fallacy to misunderstand a position. Moreover, given what Johnson thought he was refuting, one can simply see the action as a reason to regard the claim as wrong, and it's certainly not a fallacy to give such a reason.

Regardless, the 'appeal to the stone' gets its name from association with the story, whether the story exemplifies it or not. According to Wikipedia, "Argumentum ad lapidem (Latin: "appeal to the stone") is a logical fallacy that consists in dismissing a statement as absurd without giving proof of its absurdity." Considering bare dismissal without reasoning as a fallacy, which is an error of reasoning, is dubious already, but in any case it seems implausible to say that there are no absurdities that can be dismissed without proof. For instance, if I say "P & ~P", whatever P may be, there seems to be no problem with just dismissing the claim as absurd. 'Absurdity' is a classification term; classifications can have quirks or unexpected results, but some things will just be obviously the kind of thing for which you have the classification, 'absurdity', to begin with. There will be times when you can't get away with mere classification without proof -- although those will perhaps all be cases either of 'begging the question' or of just being wrong to begin with. Some classifications, however, have to be basic, and some things will indeed just be absurd. Now, to be sure, although the article is a bit obscure, it does seem at least to suggest that argumentum ad lapidem is a form of begging the question, in that it links it to 'proof by assertion', "where an unproved or disproved claim is asserted as true on no ground other than that of its truth having been asserted." In this way one could make some kind of sense of the fallacy attribution, and in a fruitful way, since petitio principii, unlike most fallacies, has a good account (Aristotle's). The case still would be complicated and uncertain however, since, as Aristotle noted, you can't beg questions with immediate principles, and the falsity of some absurdities is an immediate principle (as in the case of contradiction above).

Wikipedia's account is heavily based on Madsen Pirie's How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, although it's clear from the Talk page that there has been some effort to make more sense of it. Pirie's discussion is interesting, in that it is based on the principle, "An argument or piece of evidence cannot be dismissed because it fails to conform to an existing opinion." This does not seem to be universally true, although there will indeed be cases where it would be foolish to dismiss an argument so easily. Much of the problem is that we do a lot of different things with arguments in a lot of different contexts. Some of those contexts will have presuppositions that need to be taken into account. It is not unreasonable to dismiss an argument against (say) the possibility of evolution in a class on evolution. If Pirie means 'opinion' in a broad sense, so that it includes things we think we know, then the principle is too broad: it would make it impossible to reject any argument at all. If Pirie means 'opinion' in a narrow sense, so that it excludes anything we actually know, it becomes more plausible for some cases, but, as I have noted, not for every kind of context. (It's interesting, incidentally, that one of Pirie's examples is no-platforming or shouting down a speaker on college campuses. This shows that Pirie's point is a more controversial one than you would gather from the Wikipedia article -- in the book Pirie is actually trying to present a particular picture of what rational discourse is, and each fallacy discussed identifies elements of that picture. Pirie is fairly explicit about this, and for this reason is explicitly generous about what counts as a 'fallacy'. But much of the picture is deliberately put forward in contrast to other conceptions of rational discourse, or at least other practices purporting to be rational discourse. This isn't a problem in Pirie's book, but it's noticeable that it vanishes entirely in the Wikipedia article. This phenomenon, of a set of claims from a very specific argumentative context continuing even after the context is dropped, is very common in the history of fallacies; I've discussed it here before, for example, with the case of false analogy.)

Most of the uses of 'appeal to the stone' or 'argumentum ad lapidem' as a fallacy label trace back to Pirie's book, either in this edition or in the earlier edition, which had the title, The Book of the Fallacy. But the term did not originate here. The earliest I've been able to trace it is to 1959, in Fearnside and Holthier's Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument; you can find it under section 39, 'Abandonment of Discussion', in the 'Diversions' section. Their comment is notable:

Johnson's refutation of Berkeley, a form of refusing to discuss the "absurd," is jestingly referred to by philosophers as the invention of a new fallacy, the appeal ad lapidem (to the stone).

We see here all the later elements of it -- and the explicit recognition that it is something of a joke fallacy. I suspect that their doing so is related to their treating in a discussion of fallacies while also recognizing in the same section that abandoning discussion is not the sort of thing that would ordinarily be considered a fallacy. In any case, this is not the first instance of a joke-fallacy insinuating its way onto serious lists of fallacies; the same thing happened with argumentum ad crumenam and argumentum ad baculum much earlier, as I've also noted before.

Aquinas for Lent XXIX repent is to deplore something one has done. Now it has been stated above (III:84:9) that sorrow or sadness is twofold. First, it denotes a passion of the sensitive appetite, and in this sense penance is not a virtue, but a passion. Secondly, it denotes an act of the will, and in this way it implies choice, and if this be right, it must, of necessity, be an act of virtue. For it is stated in Ethic. ii, 6 that virtue is a habit of choosing according to right reason. Now it belongs to right reason that one should grieve for a proper object of grief as one ought to grieve, and for an end for which one ought to grieve. And this is observed in the penance of which we are speaking now; since the penitent assumes a moderated grief for his past sins, with the intention of removing them. Hence it is evident that the penance of which we are speaking now, is either a virtue or the act of a virtue.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 3.85.1

Sunday, March 18, 2018

White in the Lily, and Red in the Rose

Today is the memorial of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Doctor of the Church, although of course the feast is liturgically superseded by Sunday. He was an irenic man, inclined to compromise to keep the peace, who had a career that was very much not irenic at all; he was deposed and banished about three times for not accepting Arianism, although in each case he was eventually restored, and he was one of the Conciliar Fathers of the First Council of Constantinople. From his Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 16.12

And why did He call the grace of the Spirit water? Because by water all things subsist; because water brings forth grass and living things; because the water of the showers comes down from heaven; because it comes down one in form, but works in many forms. For one fountain waters the whole of Paradise, and one and the same rain comes down upon all the world, yet it becomes white in the lily, and red in the rose, and purple in violets and hyacinths, and different and varied in each several kind: so it is one in the palm-tree, and another in the vine, and all in all things; and yet is one in nature, not diverse from itself; for the rain does not change itself, and come down first as one thing, then as another, but adapting itself to the constitution of each thing which receives it, it becomes to each what is suitable. Thus also the Holy Ghost, being one, and of one nature, and indivisible, divides to each His grace, according as He will: and as the dry tree, after partaking of water, puts forth shoots, so also the soul in sin, when it has been through repentance made worthy of the Holy Ghost, brings forth clusters of righteousness.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

There Is a Moment of Intense Delight

The Hill of Saint Patrick
by Sir Aubrey De Vere

There is a moment of intense delight
When, standing on the place of some great deed,
We mark where human intellect for right
Hath triumphed, as at bloodless Runnymede,
Or where the victim Spartan fell in fight,
Self sacrificed, that Hellas might be freed;
Beside the walls with Raffaelle's soul still bright;
Or Chatham's tomb, by Senate-kings decreed.
In such a mood, on this bold height, I stand,
Where first the holy pilgrim, Patrick, trod,
And as he gazed upon the glorious land,
Like Pisgah's Seer, stirred by the inward God,
With the deep weight of prophecy oppressed,
Stretched forth, and blessed the land:—and it was blessed!

Aquinas for Lent XXVIII

...the proper and direct cause of sin is to be considered on the part of the adherence to a mutable good; in which respect every sinful act proceeds from inordinate desire for some temporal good. Now the fact that anyone desires a temporal good inordinately, is due to the fact that he loves himself inordinately; for to wish anyone some good is to love him. Therefore it is evident that inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-1.77.4