Saturday, February 27, 2016

Jerome and Ambrose on Epicurus

In the fourth century (perhaps even beginning in the third century), the common ascetic practices of the Christian community became the target of significant criticisms. One of the critics about whom we know the most, although almost entirely indirect, was a man named Jovinian. A former monk himself, he repudiated his monastic status and began writing works and preaching arguing that consecrated virginity was not any better than marriage and that fasting was no better than eating with thanksgiving. (It's perhaps worth noting that this indifferentism toward ascetic practice was combined with the view that all sins were equal and that no one baptized with the Holy Spirit could possibly sin.) He came to the attention of Rome, and Pope St. Siricius had his works condemned in synod. St. Ambrose in Milan followed suit with his own synod condemning him. Jerome, who had good connections to the papal curia in Rome, would shortly afterward write an intensely polemical book (so polemical that it was an embarrassment in Rome), Adversus Jovinianum, attacking his views in some detail -- and it is Jerome's work from which we get the most information about Jovinian himself. Jerome calls him "the Epicurus of Christianity."

But Jovinian was by no means alone. We have a letter from Ambrose to the Christian church in Vercellae, probably written not more than a few years after the condemnation of Jovinian, in which he mentions two other monks, Barbatianus and Sarmatio, who seem to have been advocating something very similar, and who were very likely disciples of Jovinian himself. Ambrose summarizes what he has heard of their teaching as saying that "there is no merit in abstinence, no grace in a frugal life, none in virginity, that all are valued at one price, that they are mad who chasten their flesh with fastings". Since the community of Vercellae had been having severe difficulty in choosing a bishop due to divisions in the community, it is sometimes speculated that they may have arrived in town to try to influence the choice. Notably, Ambrose also links their views to Epicureanism, and seems to suggest that they regarded themselves as philosophers. It's unclear whether they themselves affirmed the link between their views and those of Epicurus; both Jerome and Ambrose say things that can be taken either way.

Jerome and Ambrose both argue that Epicureanism is an odious philosophy, but one of the things that they also both do is argue that the views of these hedonistic ex-monks are in fact much more piggish than those of pagan Epicureans. Jerome, for instance, notes that Epicurus never refers to anything other than simple foods, fruits and vegetables, bread and water, and that he actually recommends that people not marry.

Ambrose says a number of interesting things in his development of this argument. For instance, at one point he says:

Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomæ, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.

Nobody knows who Philomarus is, and in fact it's even possible that the name is a corruption of another name. The Epitomae sound like they were probably a digest of Epicurean arguments against the Stoics, although Ambrose's reference is a bit unclear.

A bit further on, he says:

But as to that Epicurus himself, the defender of pleasure, of whom, therefore, we have made frequent mention in order to prove that these men are either disciples of the heathen and followers of the Epicurean sect or himself, whom the very philosophers exclude from their company as the patron of luxury, what if we prove him to be more tolerable than these men? He declares, as Demarchus asserts, that neither drinking, nor banquets, nor offspring, nor embraces of women, nor abundance of fish, and other such like things which are prepared for the service of a sumptuous banquet, make life sweet, but sober discussion. Lastly, he added that those who do not use the banquets of society in excess, use them with moderation. He who willingly makes use of the juices of plants alone together with bread and water, despises feasts on delicacies, for many inconveniences arise from them. In another place they also say: It is not excessive banquets, nor drinking which give rise to the enjoyment of pleasure, but a life of temperance.

'Demarchus' is also unknown, although, since the name itself might be a corruption of another name, some have suggested it should read 'Hermarchus'. If so, that would be quite interesting, since Hermarchus was the immediate successor of Epicurus himself: after Epicurus's death, he became the head of the Garden and continued to maintain the school. None of his writings have survived, although we have a few quotations and summaries. The claim made is very similar to that made by Jerome (Book II, section 11), but Jerome does not seem to be directly quoting anyone, as Ambrose does.

In any case, it's notable that the views of the Epicureans in both cases are presented as insisting on simplicity of life: instead of fine foods and banquets, which are more trouble than they are worth, bread and water, vegetables and fruits, sufficient to satisfy need and no more. And they are in both cases presented as seeking wisdom, at least of the sort that you can get in "sober discussion". This is confirmed by other sources we have. Particularly interesting is Ambrose's possible quotation from whomever-it-was, "It is not excessive banquets, nor drinking, which give rise to the enjoyment of pleasure, but a life of temperance."

Both Jerome and Ambrose do not leave it at that, of course, and argue quite vociferously for the excellence of both consecrated virginity and fasting, and their arguments, of course, would be widely copied and distributed. In part by their efforts, the importance of ascetic practices would be maintained throughout the Church. But it is interesting to see the Epicureans pop up in this way.

Lent XVI

Every action, therefore, and performance of miracles by Christ are most great and divine and marvellous: but the most marvellous of all is His precious Cross. For no other thing has subdued death, expiated the sin of the first parent, despoiled Hades, bestowed the resurrection, granted the power to us of contemning the present and even death itself, prepared the return to our former blessedness, opened the gates of Paradise, given our nature a seat at the right hand of God, and made us the children and heirs of God, save the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter 11.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Dashed Off V

As always, dashed off notes, to be taken with a grain of salt.

the rhapsodic & hortatory aspects of Mass

the significance of the fact that marriage links Genesis and Revelation

The Holy Spirit, communicating through those He first inspired to all others who through faith are capable of sharing in the inspiration the influence of that first divine expression, creates a chain and a succession. Through all these links God draws the souls of men according to His good pleasure, having attached them to one another by the power sent forth from Himself.

responses to the problem of induction // responses to objections to tradition

narrative explanations as descriptions of relevance

threefold human sublimity: reason, free will, capacity for beatitude

Suppositions are evaluated by means-end reasoning.

angelology as contributing to our understanding of understanding

the monstrous as an aesthetic idea

Emotions imitate and express music.

Instrumentality links composition and change.

SBN 160: parallel between mathematical and causal necessity

the existence of substantial forms
(1) indirectly indicated by equilibria
(2) subordinations in organizations as a sign of
(3) from accidental forms
(4) from material cause
(5) from efficient cause
(6) from final cause (primary argument)

parts external to each other -> quantity

(1) All evil defects from good.
(2) What defects from good must be initially good.
(3) Were a good supremely good, there would be no defection from good.
(4) Good that is not supremely good is good by participation.
(5) Good by participation is from supreme good.

Coherence in scientific theories is of importance only teleologically.

Judith, Tobit, I & II Maccabees, Sirach, & Wisdom as a system of moral catechesis

faith as an index, icon, & symbol
faith as encryption in God

sources of the sense of futility
(1) loss of purpose
(2) loss of order
(3) loss of responsibility

dog : pet :: cat : pet
simplifies to dog//cat qua pet (analogy and reduplication)

Gospel Harmony as classificatory inquiry

the perfume analogy of the Trinity (from Song 2:1)
the burning coal analogy (from Isaiah 6:6-7)
The Church Fathers usually draw their Trinitarian analogies directly from Scriptural images.

Nicaea II is Christological because it settles that iconic representation of Christ is neither Nestorian (dividing the natures) nor Monophysite (confusing the natures).

punitive, purgatorial, and prophylactic functions of pain.

Charmides as the analysis of a well-ordered life

baptism : armor of God :: confirmation : gifts of the Holy Spirit
(cf. Theodoret Ecc Hist 4.12)

Conservation laws indicate natural genera.

Reference is just talking-about.

DNA & the concept of template
(we also get templates in paleontology)

If Plato is inclined to treat virtue as knowledge, it is because he regards good as in some sense the primary object of intellect.

Everyone recognizes that leisure should be one of the rewards of excellence.

In sexual matters it is difficult to distinguish objects and occasions of desire. This is due, I think to the fact that the object of sexual desire is really quite general; it is the occasion that differentiates and individuates. Sexual desire doesn't take this person, qua person, as object; only acts of will do.

the insinuation of a text in light of other texts

An epistle is a semi-dialogue.

kinds of proverb
(1) feature: X is a feature of Y; e.g., "The wise lay up knowledge but the mouth of the foolish is near to destruction." Builds a template or constructs a profile.
(2) rather: Rather (better) X than Y, e.g., "Open rebuke rather than secret love." Orders priorities.
(3) query: Rhetorical question designed to make the hearer complete the thought, e.g., "Who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few day sof their vain life, which they pass like shadow?" Builds a template or constructs a profile, sometimes by negation.
(4) magisterial: Advice with link to authority, e.g., "My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent."
(5) edifying simile: e.g., "A fair woman without discretion: like a jewel of gold in a pig's mouth." Evokes a template or profile by means of image.

grace as possibility-maker

sentiment as a guide of conjecture

immateriality of intellectual operation
(1) The intellect is self-reflexive.
(2) Identity and individuation conditions for concepts are ineliminably intensional.
(3) Thought is constituted by universal acts.
(4) In thought the intellect has the form of things other than itself, without perishing.
(5) Intentional relations do not require the existence of all terms.
(6) Thought exhibits rational order in itself.
(7) Deliberative thought involves foresight and purpose.

Hume's account of education could be adapted to tradition.

Motives of credibility are signs.

demonology as a representation of temptation

"History, the great mistress of wisdom, furnishes examples of all kinds; and every prudential as well as moral precept, may be authorized, by those events which her enlarged mirror is able to present to us." Hume

An account of causation for theoretical reason is itself an explanatory strategy for practical reason.

infinite regress arguments using diminution principles in finite contexts

Tendentious rhetoric inevitably arises in political contexts because the primary forms of political reasoning are classificatory.

"The detective is a prophet looking backwards." Ellery Queen

sacrament of marriage as inherently epiclesis-like
matrimony as eucharist-by-sign
Matrimony shares with Confirmation that both receive the Holy Spirit as seal, although in very different ways.

set/class distinction as a distinction between collection & extension of predicate
Note Bernays: a class is not a fixed domain of individuals but an open universe

Suarez: sacraments are instruments separated secundum esse but conjoined secundum causalitatem of Christ's ascended human nature

sagacity in the modes of dialogue, address, epistle, song, allegory, proverb

comparative philosophy as an instrument of balanced reasoning

Figurative language is as much a matter of fleeing indications as of definite words.

To say things in juxtaposition is to suggest possible lines of analogy and contrast.

historical novels as speculative studies of practices

microdeviations in inference

the external heritage of a tradition

societies as structured by privacy constraints & publicity expectations

'Similar cause, similar causata' is rigorously true for constitutive causes.

St. Rafqa and the consistency of flourishing with suffering

docilitas as an essential economic virtue

logical fallacies have counterparts in measurement -- equivocation, irrelevance, illicit presumption, circularity

Berkeley Siris #160: connection between secondary causes (instrumental causes) and regular course of nature

popular piety as an ecosystem in constant motion
It requires conservation and reclamation, and, where clergy have been negligent, or extrinsic factors have massively interfered with their work, active restoration, and cultivation under carefully guided conditions.

the gifts of the Holy Spirit as superprudence

There needs to be recognition of the fact that names have a universe of discourse.

love of what you do, excellence in what you do, benefit from what you do

promise to Abraham -> beatitudes

humility as a motivation for excellence

Technological advance is filtered through social expectation.

superpositions of speculations

reasoned freedom in a harmonious balance with the world around one

Sacrifice gets its sublimity solely from the sublimity of common good.

Every generation is part of the good of the whole prior generation.

"God only has union with creation through His Son in His Spirit." Cyril of Alexandria (Commentary on John)

individual good as uplifted into common good

good as missive

Avoidance of the bad is not a good reason for action except in light of some positive good, because bad can only be understood in light of some positive good.

That a good is destructible does not make it an evil to be avoided.

Eulogy has a nasty habit of replacing rational account in politics.

"A monistic tendency of thought, gathering momentum, creates a meltdown in a polytheistic mythology." Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought

silence as a kind of logos

Empiricism collapses logical relations to analogy.

first person Socratic dialogues: Lovers, Lysis, Charmides, Republic
first person Socratic after introduction: Protagoras, Euthydemus
first person non-Socratic: Parmenides, Symposium, Phaedo
undated: Hipparchus, Minos, Lovers, Philebus
abrupt beginning: Hipparchus, Minos
Socrates does not appear: Laws, Epinomis
abrupt ending, Socrates breaks off discussion: Meno, Theatetus
abrupt ending, Socrates goes silent: Clitophon
abrupt ending, dialogue unfinished: Critias

Indo-Greek philosophical intersection
(1) Pyrrho (see Diogenes Laertius)
(2) Onesicratus (see Strabo)
(3) the Milinda Panha
(4) Aristoxenus fragment 53

libertas ecclesiae is to religious liberty & other liberty of conscience as baptismal character to natural imago Dei

work as able to occur within prayer (in the same way it is able to occur within conscience)

Platonic scholarship as built out of insinuations of the text

that confuse the distinct
that divide the unified
that deny the necessary
that misplace authority
that abuse the sign

deduction : geometrical mind :: classification : esprit de finesse

Music on My Mind

Billy Joel, "Two Thousand Years".

Lent XV

A soul which gives itself to prayer, either much or little, should on no account be kept within narrow bounds. Since God has given it such great dignity, permit it to wander at will through the rooms of the castle [of the soul], from the lowest to the highest. Let it not force itself to remain for very long in the same mansion, even that of self-knowledge. Mark well, however, that self-knowledge is indispensable, even for those whom God takes to dwell in the same mansion with Himself. Nothing else, however elevated, perfects the soul which must never seek to forget its own nothingness. Let humility be always at work, like the bee at the honeycomb, or all will be lost. But, remember, the bee leaves its hive to fly in search of flowers and the soul should sometimes cease thinking of itself to rise in meditation on the grandeur and majesty of its God. It will learn its own baseness better thus than by self-contemplation, and will be freer from the reptiles which enter the first room where self-knowledge is acquired. Although it is a great grace from God to practise self-examination, yet ‘too much is as bad as too little,’ as they say; believe me, by God’s help, we shall advance more by contemplating the Divinity than by keeping our eyes fixed on ourselves, poor creatures of earth that we are.

Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, First Mansion, Chapter II.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Hid in the Pleasaunce

by Arthur Christopher Benson

In my soul's mansion there are many rooms,
Chamber and oratory, hall and dome,
And some are bare and cold, some dark, and some
Noisy with humming of a hundred looms.

But one pavilion by the water's brim,
Hid in the pleasaunce, for myself I keep,
Where swinging roses through the window peep,
And stockdoves murmur in the elm-trees dim.

The voices of the morning call me thence,--
The harsh laborious voices,--and I know
That some day my mysterious Lord shall come
To thrust me from my sweet familiar home.
How will He greet me when He bids me hence,
My master? Will He call me loud or low?

'Linquenda' is Latin for 'that which is to be forsaken or departed from'. A 'pleasaunce' or pleasance, also called a pleasure-garden, is a garden or portion of a garden that exists only to please the senses, thus bearing no fruit.

Lent XIV

Doing penance for one's sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation. That is the clear and explicit teaching of Christ, and no one can fail to see how justified and how right the Catholic Church has always been in constantly insisting on this. She is the spokesman for her divine Redeemer. No individual Christian can grow in perfection, nor can Christianity gain in vigor, except it be on the basis of penance.

John XXIII, Paenitentiam agere

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Three Poem Re-Drafts

St. Michael, Defender of the Tempted

Prince of hosts! Defend us now
as battles 'round us rage;
support us in the march and fight
in warfare that we wage
against all crowns and thrones that serve
the spirit of the age!

Then fight with us by God's good grace,
all angels at your side,
and, as you cast the dragon down,
cast down oppressor's pride;
the liar walks with robes of light --
reveal his wicked lie!

Upon the name, the Holy Name,
lift up your voice to call,
and carry soldiers from the field
who, arrow-ridden, fall.
Cast back the serpent's malice cold
ere death envenom all!

You are one like unto God;
God's image are we too,
and though the prince of darkness rule,
God has His word renewed
through broken flesh and flowing blood
of Faithful One, and True.

Prince of hosts! Defend us yet
with plan and tactic sage;
enforce our blows against the foe
in warfare that we wage
against all hordes and hosts that serve
the spirit of the age!


In silent fields I walked alone,
the bitter breezes running by.
The sound of feet on earth and stone
was doomful; I did not know why.
The sun on high was sanguine red,
the rows of corn dark brown below;
they rattled, bones long dry and dead,
they withered in the bloody glow.
The sand was in the air, and, deep,
the clouds with billows dusted all.
Yea, as you sow, so shall you reap;
for poorly built is swift to fall.

The moon arose, dark orange and ill
as though it had been dipped in blood;
its silvern light with plague was filled
and poured on all a dirty flood.
No wolves were there, but wolfish howl
yet roared through cold and bitter wind
as dark yet rainless clouds did growl.
With muttered thunder day did end.
The heavens moaned in death-like sleep,
on haggard lands fell shroud and pall.
Yea, as you sow, so shall you reap;
for poorly built is swift to fall.


Ah, how it was!
A mineless age, a ploughless age,
marriage unbroken, ever-whole,
no evil deed or wish,
each in proper place, devoted,
prosperity and piety dancing together,
theft a monster in a nursery tale,
hunger an unease in a dream:
the rain is on the fields,
and always a needed rain;
the crops grow up,
and always needed crops;
the people are of good mind,
minds unruled by need.


The real beauty of a human being is to cause all one's senses to serve God, and to divinize them by drawing near to God, by participating in the divine works, in order to become worthy of hearing such words from Christ the Bridegroom: you have become beautiful and delightful to me.

Gregory of Narek, The Blessing of Blessings, Ervine, tr., Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo: 2007), p. 181. (The reference is to Song of Songs 7:6.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Things Great, Excellent, and Sublime

It is by no means to be denied that the man who subjects himself to studies too severe does violence to his nature; and, although he may sharpen his intellect on one point, yet whatever he does wants the grace and facility natural to those who, proceeding temperately, preserve the calmness of their intelligence, and the force of their judgment, keeping all things in their proper place, and avoiding those subtleties which rarely produce any better effect than that of imparting a laboured, dry, and ungraceful character to the production, whatever it may be, which is better calculated to move the spectator to pity than awaken his admiration. It is only when the spirit of inspiration is roused, when the intellect demands to be in action, that effectual labour is secured; then only are thoughts worthy of expression conceived, and things great, excellent, and sublime accomplished.

Giorgio Vasari, "Paolo Uccello" in The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, vol. 1, Lavin, ed., Heritage Press (New York: 1967) p. 107.

Lent XII

Let us suppose a man in the world, held fast as yet in the love of this world and of his flesh; and, inasmuch as he bears the image of the earthly man, occupied with earthly things, without a thought of things heavenly, can any one fail to see that this man is surrounded with horrible darkness, unless he also is sitting in the same fatal gloom? For no sign of his salvation has yet shone upon him; no inner inspiration bears its witness in his heart as to whether an eternal predestination destines him to good.

But, then, suppose the heavenly compassion vouchsafes sometime to have regard to him, and to shed upon him a spirit of compunction to make him bemoan himself and learn wisdom, change his life, subdue his flesh, love his neighbour, cry to God, and resolve hereafter to live to God and not to the world; and suppose that thenceforward, by the gracious visitation of heavenly light and the sudden change accomplished by the Right Hand of the Most High he sees clearly that he is no longer a child of wrath, but of grace, for he is now experiencing the fatherly love and divine goodness towards him—a love which hitherto had been concealed from him so completely as not only to leave him in ignorance whether he deserved love or hate, but also as to make his own life indicate hatred rather than love, for darkness was still on the face of the deep—would it not seem to you that such an one is lifted directly out of the profoundest and darkest deep of horrible ignorance into the pleasant and serene deep of eternal brightness?

Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter XL to Thomas, Prior of Beverley

Monday, February 22, 2016

Particular Ought, Particular Can

'Ought implies can' is an old principle, usually attributed to Kant (although you can certainly find older arguments requiring something analogous). There has been an increasing tendency to criticize it in recent years. I think these criticisms are often extraordinarily naive, and tend to confuse the often sloganish way in which the principle is stated with what it was originally intended to mean. When people used it to summarize an idea of Kant's, Kant is quite clear that it is entirely possible that you can't do what you ought to do -- he doesn't think it's the sort of thing you could know one way or another. But to command something forward as a categorical 'ought' is to put it forward as something to be done, and practically speaking this requires taking it as something you can do. It establishes that it is reasonable to treat it as possible for practical terms; but we have no proof that we can actually do it, because that would require a proof of free will, which Kant doesn't think we have. Thus it's reasonable to hope you can do what you ought, although you can't in fact guarantee that this is true. Or to put it in other words, an 'ought' morally and practically requires that we treat it as implying 'can', although we limited human minds are not able to prove that it does in fact do so for us in particular. This is quite clearly not a naive interpretation of 'ought implies can'.

But even more naive interpretations are not as naive as the versions sometimes criticized as if they were the way to understand the principle. Here is a case that, as far as I am aware, everyone who has ever claimed that 'ought implies can' has accepted could happen:

Jay has an obligation to do X at a certain time T. Jay fails to do X at T, and thus fails to fulfill his obligation.

But it is also quite self-evident that if you are not fulfilling your obligation, you cannot also be doing what is required to fulfill it. Therefore if Jay is not doing X at T, he can't fulfill his obligation to do X at T. Therefore, one might conclude, he can't do it, so he has no obligation to do it. This would obviously be a problem for the principle, if it required a conclusion like this -- it would mean that no one ought to do anything they don't actually do, so 'ought' would actually imply 'does'. But, of course, this does not appear to be what anyone has ever thought the principle actually required, which is a sign that this is likely a bad interpretation of the principle. And the culprit would appear to be the idea that the principle 'ought implies can' requires that 'ought' implies every kind of 'can' rather than just some kind of 'can'.

Consider the following scenario:

Kay has an obligation to meet Jay at no later than noon. Kay puts off going to the meeting until it is physically impossible to meet Jay by noon.

Kay can't meet Jay; she's guaranteed she can't. Thus, by a naive interpretation, it's not true that she ought to meet Jay. But this is not really any less absurd (in philosophy, the technical term for 'stupid' is 'absurd') an interpretation of the principle than the previous one: she only can't fulfill her obligation because she's already violating it. That she can't fulfill it in this way does not imply that the obligation does not imply any possibility at all. And, indeed, we know that Kay's obligation was not an impossible obligation to meet; the whole set-up requires that meeting Jay at no later than noon is possible.

To be sure, the possibility is fairly attenuated; but this does not mean that it is not a genuine possibility. I cannot be at home now, for the obvious reason that I am currently somewhere else, namely, on campus finishing up required office hours. But I can be at home now in the limited sense that it is a possible state of affairs that is not inconsistent with my abilities: I could have stayed home rather than doing what I ought, and I am perfectly capable of going home at any point. And the reverse works exactly the same way. Suppose I were at home instead of on campus where I am required to be at this time. I cannot be at home and away from home at the same time and in the same way; therefore, I couldn't be doing what I ought. But the obligation is not linked to what I am able to do when I am violating the obligation; that 'ought' does not imply that 'can'. But this does not show that the 'ought' does not imply some 'can'. And, indeed, if it were literally impossible to do something, one might well say that this shows that you have no such obligation. For instance, if I went around claiming that everybody has an obligation to jump over the moon, it's perfectly legitimate to reject this claim on the grounds that we know for sure that no human being could possibly do so.

Consider another kind of case.

You have an obligation to meet Jay and Kay at noon. As it happens, God, who is omniscient, knows that you won't. If God knows that you won't, however, then you won't. And if you won't meet Jay and Kay at noon, you can't also meet them at noon. So you will not fulfill your obligation.

This works exactly the same way: the impossibility is conditional (it is impossible only given that you in fact won't), and is not in fact an impossibility relevant to that particular obligation.

It's likely that there are cases where the relationship between 'ought' and 'can' is non-trivial. But it is a confusion to hold that the principle requires that if you ought to do something, you can do it, simpliciter; 'ought' does not imply every 'can'. Things may be possible in one way and not possible in another way. And, what's more, you can entirely make sense of the notion that you might have different kinds of 'ought' depending on the different kinds of 'can' to which the 'ought' is linked. What you would need to counter the principle is not to find situations where you can't do what you ought, in some particular sense of 'can't', but to find an 'ought' that is linked to no particular 'can' at all. It would at least be hard work to argue that anyone ought to do things that are absolutely impossible. Without such an argument, however, it seems that every obligation does imply some kind of possibility, even though it doesn't imply every kind of possibility.

(There are, of course, other questions in the vicinity of this, which complicate the question of how obligation and possibility are related. For instance, we sometimes treat trying to fulfill an obligation as if it were not significantly different from fulfilling it, and we sometimes don't. But if trying ever counts, then this changes what counts as 'being able to fulfill the obligation'. And there are a number of other things that suggest that we should not be facile about what it means to say that one can fulfill an obligation.)

In Both Let's Do Our Best

by George Herbert

Welcome deare feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authoritie,
But is compos'd of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church sayes, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev'ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos'd of love and fear
Begins at home, and layes the burden there,
When doctrines disagree.
He sayes, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandall to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unlesse Authoritie, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it lesse,
And Power it self disable.

Besides the cleannesse of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulnesse there are sluttish fumes,
Sowre exhalations, and dishonest rheumes,
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodnesse of the deed.
Neither ought other mens abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It 's true, we cannot reach Christ's fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior's purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev'n as he.
In both let's do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

Lent XI

As faith leads to full knowledge, so hope leads to perfect love, and, as it is said, If you will not believe you shall not understand (Is. vii. 9, acc. to lxx.), so it may equally be said with fitness, if you have not hoped, you will not perfectly love. Knowledge then is the fruit of faith, perfect charity of hope. In the meantime the just lives by faith (Hab. ii. 4), but he is not happy except by knowledge; and he aspires towards God as the hart desires the water-brooks; but the blessed drinks with joy from the fountain of the Saviour, that is, he delights in the fulness of love.

Thus understanding and love, that is, the knowledge of and delight in the truth, are, perhaps, as it were, the two arms of the soul, with which it embraces and comprehends with all saints the length and breadth, the height and depth, that is the eternity, the love, the goodness, and the wisdom of God. And what are all these but Christ?

Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter VI to Peter, Cardinal Deacon (slightly modernized)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Fortnightly Book, February 21

When people talk about the Tuscan painter and architect Giorgio Vasari, one of the first things they say is that he was very popular in his day, although no longer so, so that, despite the fact that his work had the respect of sixteenth century Florence, if it were not for his writing he would be hardly considered at all. Be that as it may, it is certainly true that Vasari's accidental turn to writing made his reputation more than his primary artistic work. As he himself occasionally speaks of the transience of painting (easily lost, easily destroyed, easily faded) in comparison to the duration of literature, he perhaps would not be surprised by that.

When he was thirty-five, he was doing some work for Cardinal Farnese, and happened to eat dinner with the cardinal when an art collector, Paolo Giovio, was also dining with him. Giovio remarked that he was writing a treatise on all the famous artists of modern times, from the thirteenth century up to the sixteenth. He was asked what he thought of an idea like that, and he replied that he thought it a good one, but thought that it should be composed in a rather different way than it seemed that Giovio was intending to compose it. The cardinal suggested that he should perhaps do it right. And, at least as far as Vasari himself tells us, he reluctantly agreed.

But if he was as reluctant to do the work as he claims, he was nonetheless extraordinarily well prepared for it: he had been keeping notes and memoranda on artists, especially Florentine artists, for years and years already, so that he was able to compose his massive work, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, in a few years, notwithstanding his other artistic work. The book itself is an extraordinary monument; the first printed work to describe the surging of new artistic methods as a rinascita, Renaissance, it shaped views of Renaissance art for the next several hundred years. It still does, in many ways, although the limits of the work are now better known -- it is famously biased in favor of the artists of Florence and Rome, about which Vasari knew the most, although the second edition ameliorated this slightly by beefing up the Venetian representation slightly. To some extent the legendary reputation of Renaissance Florence is an artifact of the fact that Vasari had already championed Florence's place -- although, of course, he did have good material to work with.

The full Lives is a massive work, but in the 1960s the Heritage Press (New York) put together a two-volume abridgement and selection focused on the painters in particular: The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters. It pulls out forty-seven painter-biographies from the whole and organizes them chronologically. This two-volume edition, which is from my grandfather's shelves, will be the fortnightly book. It is illustrated with woodcuts, most copies of Vasari's original ones, and full-color photographic plates of works from thirty-two of the painters.

Evelyn Waugh, Helena


Opening Passage:

Once, very long ago, before ever the flowers were named which struggled and fluttered below the rain-swept walls, there sat at an upper window a princess and a slave reading a story which even then was old: or rather, to be entirely prosaic, on the wet afternoon of the Nones of May in the year (as it was computed later) of Our Lord 273, in the City of Colchester, Helena, red-haired, youngest daughter of Coel, Paramount Chief of the Trinovantes, gazed into the rain while her tutor read the Iliad of Homer in a Latin paraphrase. (p. 3)

Summary: Helena, daughter of old king Coel, that merry old soul, is as practical and prosaic and down-to-earth as one can imagine; her response to the Iliad is that she would like to find the actual ruins of Troy someday. The only thing that usually gets her spirit soaring is horses; although, lately, she has been taking peeks at a Roman soldier, Constantius who is hanging around on some mysterious mission. Marrying Constantius will take her well into the Roman Empire, the decaying, decadent, strife-ridden core of the world, in which the people are slowly drowsing themselves away on the drug-like effects of vague dreams and ungrounded abstractions.

It is an age in which all religion tends Gnostic. But there is one religious group that has not wholly succombed. It's not that they have escaped infection -- they too are whisked away by pseudo-profundities and irresponsible abstractions, both because of the sentiments they generate and because dabbling in these things is the way to be 'educated' and 'intellectual' and 'pious' -- but this religious group has a different answer to the question: When and where did all this religious stuff you keep talking about actually happen? She is quite surprised when they tell her, without hesitation, that it happened in Palestine, under Pontius Pilate. It is enough to catch her interest, and she will eventually, of course, become Christian and set out to find the actual Cross of Christ.

In one sense this is a historical novel and in another sense not. Except for a few scattered licenses, Waugh is careful to fit the main events of his story to the history and, where history is unclear, not to stray too far from the rumors and legends that have come down to us. But the characters are recognizably, and deliberately, modern. Marcias chatters Gnostic emanations, but he does so in a way that shows him to be very much like the modern religious con man; Eusebius of Nicomedia may talk Christian theology but he would make a very good worldly Anglican prelate, capable of entering all the right social circles because he is able to play on the religious tastes of his audience. The Emperor Constantine talks like an upper-class British prig. In a very masterly way, Waugh tells an apparently pious story that is at the same time an almost wickedly gleeful skewering of the modern age, which likes its religion spiritualized into purely symbolic realms and its politics full of cunning schemes for a purely imaginary future, which loves people as long as it can consider them as vague generalities to serve as convenient excuses for its own preferences, which does great evils for airy abstractions and fails to recognize that goodness is the most pragmatic thing in the world.

And against it all is the bulwark of Helena, and a religion that has no point at all unless there was a real death on a real Cross for real forgiveness of real sins of real people.

Favorite Passage:

There was a further pause; then in clear, schoolroom tone, Helena said: "What I should like to know is: when and where did all this happen? And how do you know?"

Minervina frowned. Marcias replied: "These things are beyond time and space. Their truth is integral to their proposition and by nature transcends material proof."

"Then, please, how do you know?"

"By a lifetime of patient and humble study, your Majesty."

"But study of what?"

"That, I fear, would take a lifetime to particularize."

A little murmur of admiration greeted this neat reply and on the crest of it the hostess rose to dismiss the meeting. (pp. 108-109)

Recommendation: There are one or two odd artistic choices, but in a number of ways this is Waugh at his best. Highly Recommended.


Quotations from Evelyn Waugh, Helena, Little, Brown, and Co. (New York: 2012).

Maronite Year XXV

The reading for the Maronite Third Sunday of Lent consists of the interlinked tales of the raising of the daughter of Jairus and the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, so the day is usually called the Sunday of the Hemorrhaging Woman. The theme that links both stories, of course, is faith; and since all the Sundays of Lent in the Maronite calendar consider facets of our salvation, the day emphasizes the importance of faith to salvation.

Sunday of the Hemorrhaging Woman
2 Corinthians 7:4-11; Luke 8:40-56

Sometimes we cannot even cry out;
sometimes we do not even dare to beg.
Our sins ooze out,
our hearts tremble,
and we creep up to touch our Lord's hem,
hoping that then we will not be noticed.

Even a creeping faith may bring hope,
even a first step may bring repentance;
repentance saves,
hope strengthens us,
and healing may come from faith's mere touch,
for such is the sovereignty of our Christ.

You, O Lord our God, are our great shield;
You, O Lord Jesus, are our great reward.
Look on our faith,
heal all our sins,
undo the festering of our wounds,
pour your healing balm upon our sick hearts.

You are clothed with fire, feared by angels;
yet we dare creep to You for Your healing,
for You, O Word,
are become man,
that we may reach out to touch Your hem
and, unburned, be healed by Your great power.

You are all pure, and we are unclean,
but we cannot sully Your glory,
sunlight of truth,
You are all life, and we are like dead,
but by faith we may be raised to Your life.