12 December, 2008

North vs. South

It's pretty natural, I suppose, being as I am at a college in an unambiguously southern state, that I should be exposed to some fairly strong opinions about the Civil War. Barely any of these, it needs hardly be said, are particularly complementary to the North. I was rather surprised coming down here, actually, to find opinions on the subject still so vehemently held... I mean, the war was nearly 150 years ago, and everyone in the South is now benefiting on equal terms with all the rest of us from the Union of the states. And you just need to look at the history of the 20th century to see how beneficial that union has ended up being to us and to the rest of the world (WWI, WWII, etc).

Be that as it may, my American History class has been quite wonderful in its approach to the era, treating the writings of the period to a rigorous interpretation in light of the country's inheritance from the Founding Fathers. My current understanding of Lincoln's writings leads me to refine my earlier ideas that it is possible to analyze the Civil War from two major perspectives: it was either a war about slavery or a war about states' rights. I do think each of these two aspects was decisive in raising the main issue at stake as an issue divisive enough to split the county, and in the minds of many involved, one or the other was the sole reason for which they were fighting. But there is a more fundamental issue at stake, I think, and it's one that is more intimately connected with the message of the Declaration than either of those two.

I believe that before it was a questions of states' rights explicitly, the dispute at the heart of the war was about how we are to understand rights at all. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that this issue is implied in the states' rights and slavery interpretations. The essential question at the heart of, for example, the Lincoln-Douglass debates, is whether it is accurate to conceive of "liberty" as the capacity to override existing statutory law (here, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850) just because a majority wishes to do so. Of course, if you're going to go by the principles laid out in the Federalist papers, to legislate purely according to the will of the majority as opposed to precedent and fundamental law "may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny" (Federalist 88).

This becomes a question of greater significance if the fundamental law on which the government is based purports to be a reflection (at least to some degree) of the absolute laws of justice, as we see in the claim of the Declaration to be based on the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" and that their rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are inalienable. Of course, if the government is such an organic institution, existing in principle from before their actual codification, as Lincoln suggests in his First Inaugural Address (paragraph 13), you really can't throw it off legally (i.e., Constitutionally for Lincoln) unless it itself breaches the fundamental law at its core. The fundamental law moreover is essentially the sum of absolute duties intrinsic to man in virtue of his personhood, not in virtue of majority rule in their favour, while the rights resulting from this fundamental law comprise the freedom to fulfill it. Thus if you reject the government that is trying to uphold the fundamental law, you're rejecting this conception of liberty for excellence in favour of a conception as liberty as the random will of a majority.

Of course, a question that comes up as to whether one could see the South in the Civil War as not intending to reject the fundamental law at the heart of the Constitution at all but to merely change the external form of government that protects it. However, slavery intrinsically violates fundamental law by denying certain people their absolute rights. Looking at the matter chronologically, it is fairly easy to trace the natural progression of thought that would come from support of such an institution. First you have a slave or two, you need to justify the fact that this manifestly contradicts the principles of the Declaration, you naturally enough begin to cry for "states' rights!" "our natural liberties to do what we want with our own property!". Thus you have the concept of states' rights deriving easily from the fact of slavery. Implied in this in the sense that it is necessary to make this view coherent is the redefinition of what it means for Americans to be self-governing.

The idea at the heart of Lincoln's battle for the Union, for the upholding of the American Constitution is that the liberty to which we have a Constitutional right is the freedom to do what is right, not to have equal freedom to do good or evil. If we deny the existence of moral absolutes, civil society disintegrates, Lincoln believes, and it is for this conviction that he came back to politics, debated Stephen Douglass, and finally became president.

11 December, 2008

The Education of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’ autobiography follows the development of his earnest conviction of his innate humanity and liberty. This realization has its roots in his early childhood when he entertained “a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold [him] within its foul embrace” (Douglass, 43). The rest of his years as a slave are a continual struggle to retain this inborn sense of humanity in the face of repeated attempts to reduce him to a state of bestial apathy towards his natural liberty. Preservation of his sense of inherent freedom and humanity requires that his embryonic understanding be nourished through education from some trustworthy source which supports, deepens, and sophisticates the vague comprehension with which he is born. This source he discovers by learning to read.

Experience is the first form of education Douglass receives. As a small child he witnesses much brutality in plantation life. Recounting his experience of seeing his aunt brutally beaten by his master, he observes that “it was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and participant” (Douglass, 21). He speaks of the songs and chants of his people, each of which is “a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains,” and traces his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” from his hearing of these songs (Douglass, 27, 28). Despite his horror at the injustices suffered by his people however, he does not “understand the deep meaning” of their sadness well enough to express it in concrete terms (Douglass, 27). He longs vaguely for freedom but has little comprehension of why the opposite is wrong and poor ability to phrase his intuition.

Moreover, though experience reveals to him the ugliness of the institution, in the long run it has the potential to deceive him. Natural sentiment, met with the sights the young Douglass witnesses, initially revolts. However, constant dehumanizing treatment can hardly fail to make some impression on most people, and the Narrative recounts the deadening effect slavery—both the experience of being enslaved and owning slaves—has upon the souls of men, black and white alike. The masters beastialize themselves by denying the humanity of other men, convincing themselves and others that these slaves are incapable of “virtuous freedom” (Douglass, 80). Slavery can prove as injurious” to such tyrants as it does to those from whom they have withheld freedom (Douglass, 49). The slaves in their turn, having no guide to reveal the path from servitude to freedom, begin to swallow the lie that they are not fit for the “privilege” of basic human liberty. Constant mistreatment and attempts to break their natural spirit can only reinforce such a misconception. Experience can degrade more than it enlightens, Douglass shows. Some further teacher is necessary to sustain the germ of liberty within the heart of a slave.

Douglass attains this further education through reading. Ironically enough, his master, Hugh Auld, is responsible for kindling Douglass' enthusiasm for this mode of education by remarking that to teach a slave his letters “would forever unfit him to be a slave” (Douglass, 45). Upon hearing this, Douglass realizes that “the white man's power to enslave the black man” is found in the former's ability to keep the latter illiterate. Books and education in language give “tongue to interesting thoughts of [Douglass'] soul, which had frequently flashed through [his] mind, and died away for lack of utterance (Douglass, 51). By preserving ideas in concrete words, a book helps to immortalize and clarify glimpses of the truth that appear in experience. In Douglass' soul, “freedom now appear[s] to disappear no more” (Douglass, 51).

The experience of slaves in the American South was of being perpetually ground deeper into a “beast-like stupor” that crippled the natural feeling of innate freedom. Insofar as his only education was experience, the indoctrination his brutal treatment imposed could “disgust the slave with freedom” by causing himself to believe himself unfit for it (Douglass, 81). Thus, the strength of the innate notion of human freedom is to some degree a matter of cultural inheritance, due to the influence of the education provided by one's culture. The result of Douglass' reading is that his education is not confined to the indoctrination pressed upon him by his cultural circumstances. His formation in knowledge and understanding “rekindles the few expiring embers of freedom,” and “revives in [him] the sense of [his] own manhood” (Douglass, 78).

10 December, 2008

Just a note

I'm doing some maintainance on this site just now, which includes deleting some of the links for the blogs I've linked to which seem to have become largely defunct since I posted them. I'm going to work on looking out for any others whose theme would blend well with that of this blog.

On a completely unrelated note, I just got back from the UD English Department Christmas party, and was quite impressed by the deliciousness of the food. Salmon with dill, spinach dip with flat bread, hummus, truffles, and quite a nice variety of desserts. Jolly good.

We also had a reading of an Anglo-Saxon hymn that was set up a dialogue between Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus. Joseph was criticizing Mary at first, thinking that she had been unfaithful to him, and Mary replies by defending herself through a sophisticated exposition of the Catholic doctrine of the Virgin birth. It was rather interesting, although I was rather disappointed at the portrayal of St. Joseph, who wouldn't have reacted so judgmentally, I think. It was fascinating to hear the ideas laid out in a language and format that was so reminiscent of Beowulf or some other poem from about that time period

05 December, 2008

Nietzsche vs Christianity

In one of our recent philosophy colloquiums, Fr. James Lehrberger presented a rather interesting discussion of the 19th century German philosopher, Nietzsche, and his critique of Christianity. I've heard plenty about the guy before, but not his specific argument against the faith.

Basically, Fr. Lehrberger allowed Christian doctrine to provide its own answer to Nietzsche's accusation that it is a religion fueled by an unconscious envy, hatred, and spirit of revenge. This answer is quite useful for what it attempts to disprove (namely that vengeance and hatred are at the heart of Christian doctrine). However, it does not attempt to address the fundamental discord between Nietzsche's philosophy and the tenets of Christianity, the fact that each simultaneously claims to be the only true path to human fulfillment. Nietzsche's assertion that Christianity consciously celebrates weakness and subservience and rejoices in the destruction of the strong was shown by Fr. Lehrberger's argument to be inaccurate: Christianity claims with every bit as much confidence as Nietzsche to the the route to a fuller and more glorious humanity. This nonetheless leaves us, however, with two radically opposed pictures of what it means to be human, each of which alleges that the other will in practice destroy everything dynamic and noble in a man.

For Nietzsche, the ultimate human good is the advantage of the individual. Christian emphasis on a person's duties towards others seems to him no more than an attempt of the weak to depict standards protecting their kind from robbery, murder, tyranny, or other "crimes" as based upon some objective moral standard. Only the weak and vulnerable benefit from commandments and laws forbidding violence or trickery, while those who are strong and intelligent enough to use such means for their gain are penalized. The greatest human good is realized in whatever person is most independent of such effeminate myths, most free to use his natural advantages to his own benefit, and most rich in those advantages which allow him to retain this independence unchallenged.

A very different conception of what it means to be human drives the message of Christianity. Man is not brought to perfection but in fact is dehumanized when he isolates himself from his fellow men and acts in a manner that puts him into constant competition with them. To be human is to be an intrinsically relational being. Whatever actions harm one's fellow men harm oneself as well, and true humanity therefore necessarily excludes whatever actions violate the standards of just interaction between human beings. Conversely, actions which benefit the weak benefit also the actor, as in strengthening one member of the Body of Christ, they bring a more perfect life to all.

Essentially the question that one who examines Nietzsche's critique carefully must ultimately face is whether his proposal or the Church's message promises true human fulfillment. An adequate answer would fill a book at least, but it is true that to some extent, the latter option makes more intuitive sense. As we live our lives, it's hard to make the case that we are most complete as lone individuals seem very convincing at all to ourselves. The principle of rationality really does appear in our daily lives as a concrete reality, and it is from this experiential base that we can be motivated to help defend the Christian view of man's meaning in life.

20 November, 2008

Blog personality?

Hahaha... so now personality tests have made it into the blogosphere, eh? You know those ridiculous but quite amusing tests you have to take, for example, before being assigned a roommate? Well here's a one for my blog. Apparently they've designed an application to explore the site and analyze things like type of vocabulary, length of sentences, and to some degree, subject matter (kind of an expanded version of what those reading-level analyses on Microsoft Word do). It really is quite amusing.

The analysis indicates that the author of http://sesquipadalianmusings.blogspot.com is of the type:

INTP - The Thinkers
The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

The person in the picture looks just a tad schizophrenic. There's no way anyone has that many things going on in their head at once and stays sane.

Try it yourself if you've got a blog. It will make you chuckle... and everyone else is doing it (most novel reason in the world, eh?). http://www.typealyzer.com/

18 November, 2008

Slavery's Destruction of the Family

This small paper begins to get at some of what I was talking about previously, though it's not in any sense complete. I'm only focusing on the family here, and even my treatment of that is quite restricted due to length limits. It's a good pre-exercise for the real thing, though. The prompt here was "What role does the cabin play as the dominent image in Stowe's argument against slavery?"

Given the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic protest against slavery, it is not surprising that Uncle Tom's cabin plays an important symbolic role in her argument. This cabin, as the center of Uncle Tom's family life, represents the most sacred and fundamental unit of human society. However, in a slave-owning society, both Uncle Tom and his home are no more than pieces of property, vulnerable at any moment to separation. According to Stowe, the social and moral ills of slavery are rooted in the destruction of the family, in robbing human beings of the capacity to create a safe and secure home.

Physically present for only a few brief pages towards the beginning of the book, the cabin nevertheless acts as the dominant image of slavery's catastrophic effect on family life, particularly in its later conspicuous absence. First presented as a neat, welcoming sanctuary of family life, with its "neat garden patch" and good food, the position of this "snug territory" is nonetheless insecure (Stowe, 32). Its status as center of life for the small community of relations and friends on the estate is legally subordinate to that of the master's "close adjoining" house (Stowe, 32). The preceding scenes in which the master and trader plan to sell Tom, the spiritual and familial head of this small community, make the reader aware that the most attentive efforts of a slave to create a happy, peaceful household are in vain if the master finds it convenient to break up this state by selling a member of the family. Tom is sold, removed from his home and family in order to satisfy the debts of a relatively decent master. He has no right to defend his home; no liberty to fight for himself and the welfare of those he loves. Not only is his lifestyle insecure, but he has no freedom to secure it.

The motif of the breaking up of familial relationships continues from the time Tom is sold to the end of the narrative. George and Eliza Harris' desperate bid to preserve their family in a free land, Topsy's lack of a good and loving upbringing, and Cassy's bitterness at having been robbed of her daughter and of the chance of a stable family demonstrate how this legal and societal lack of respect for the home of a slave plagues those who live in such a society. Thus, even in the best of circumstances where a kind master and mistress allow the foundation of such a community among the slaves, the home cannot truly flourish. The system of slavery destroys the essential characteristic of security in family life by viewing people as property, liable to be sold to satisfy a good master's debts or a bad master's whims. As another decent slave owner, Augustine St. Clare puts it, the heart of the evil of slavery does not lie in its "abuses": "the thing itself is the essence of all abuse" (Stowe, 262).

During Tom's absence, his cabin is "shut up" (Stowe, 301). He is robbed of it and it is robbed of him. Not until the very end is this break in some sense healed. George Shelby—himself a former honorary member of Uncle Tom's family, though the master's son—frees the slaves and removes this insecurity from them "in case of [his] getting in debt or dying" (Stowe, 509). The cruel fate of Uncle Tom had caused Shelby to resolve "that nobody, through me, should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation" (Stowe, 509). His final exhortaion to his former servants serves as an exhortation to Stowe's readers as well. "Think of your freedom," he says, "every time you see Uncle Tom's cabin"; this simple house will be a reminder of the evils of slavery that tear apart the family and uproot a loving household (Stowe, 509).

16 November, 2008

Jolly exciting, all this!

Going back to what I was saying last night:

Essentially, Stowe's argument is that slavery dehumanizes people by treating them like "isolated selves", as though they were individual pawns to be separated from ties of family and friends at the whim of their masters. There is no recognition in law of their personal identity in terms of their family or larger community. You see this in her constant centering of the plot around various types of homes: we start in the "ideal" slave-owning household where the slaves are treated with incredible kindness by their owners. The lack of respect in law for their community however results in Uncle Tom and Eliza (for her son's sake) being torn from this community in order to satisfy his master's debts. The first dozen chapters end with Eliza arriving safely at the idyllic Quaker home in the north. The second dozen follow Uncle Tom south to where we find Eva, a sort of symbol of purity in the midst of the deep south, saddened by the sin of her own home and longing for an eternal one. Finally we have the tragic scene where Uncle Tom is killed yet dies a freer man than any of his murderers because he has held on to the one community - the Christian (real Christian) community that no earthly law can rob him of.

This is all pretty evident from even the most brief summary. The real controversy remains whether this is at all what Douglass and Jacobs are trying to say. (Fortunately we only have to deal in detail with Douglass for the paper - if we had to treat Jacobs too, this really could get to dissertation length.) Just as with Stowe's book, Douglass's argument becomes much more apparent if you start by looking at it from a more architectonic standpoint. Chapter 1 opens with Douglass' regrets that he knows neither his birthday nor his father nor his mother. Chapter 2 centers around his lack of a home and on the slaves' innate attraction to the idea of the "Great House Farm" which will be not just their master's but theirs as well. In chapter 3 we get an account of his inability to live the way he wishes to - not just of his lack of independence to do whatever he feels like, but of his freedom to live well: he speaks of how slavery creates a disjunct between the "thoughts of the heart" and one's moral obligations, and what the slaves must in fact say and do. They are forced to lie, to ignore familial bonds, to keep their own self-interest at the forefront of their minds if they are to survive at all. The introduction of the overseer in the fourth chapter and accounts of killings perpetrated by him and his ilk for which the slaves have no hope of legal redress emphasize the lack of protection in law for their community. (Isn't this cool stuff?) Finally, in chapter five and following, Douglass learns to read. This reintroduces him to a community, gives him a notion of it that in turn gives him the courage to claim his freedom. Once able to read he has "reached the period in [his] life when [he] can give dates"; he receives a new set of "fathers" in the figures of the Founding Fathers and others whose writings educate him in a sense of his humanity; in the language of scripture, he receives a new mother tongue. When he finally has this new sense of community (sense of time, forebears, church), of where he belongs as an individual in relation to other people, he fights to preserve it.

So that's the idea, more or less, from an architectonic point of view. Seven pages will leave plenty of room for explicit quotations and so forth, which will be fun.

Another seven page paper!

Well, I've got another 7-page paper assigned in American Civ. The prompt is even more exciting than the last one. Seriously, you could write a dissertation on the thing. The actual prompt is only a sentence long: "Does Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin betray or convey the slaves' own argument against slavery." Ok. Maybe on first reading it doesn't sound all that enthralling (or maybe it does). But if you've been doing the reading, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, if you know even a bit about the virulent controversy revolving around the question of the proper way to interpret the slave's demand for freedom and the black Americans' demand for civil rights (Martin Luther King vs Malcom X, anyone?), and if you've just been bowled over by the realization that Uncle Tom's Cabin isn't just a silly, sentimental novel but has a valid and well-structured argument at its base, you probably will reconsider.

Add to that the fact that Dr. Hanssen handed out several very cool readings - one from Cicero (De Officiis) on how we can understand man's natural rights in terms of his moral obligations, one from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, an excerpt from John Paul II's "Veritatis Splendor" which discusses intrinsically evil acts, part of an address from Pope Benedict, and a very interesting chapter from a book about women's experiences in slavery by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese - and you can see how this paper has the potential to be very fun indeed. I'm going to argue that Uncle Tom's Cabin, contrary to the ideas of more recent literary criticism ("more recent" being the '60s), does in fact convey the Douglass' and Jacob's main argument against slavery. How does it do that? Well, that's where everything should get so interesting, of course.

I shall post about it tomorrow.

02 November, 2008

A Practical Religion

“I fancy,” Benjamin Franklin muses in discussing his famous decision to run away from his apprenticeship, “[my brother's] harsh and tyrannical Treatment of me, might be a means of impressing me with that Aversion to arbitrary Power that has stuck to me thro' my whole Life” (Franklin, 69). This is only a side comment – no more than a note to the main text, in fact – yet it succinctly summarizes the spirit of Franklin's legendary bid for independence. Preceding this symbolic break with the convention of apprenticeship, he had already broken with his family's conventional Puritan religion in favor of a temperate liberal deism, but it was not until several years later that he codified his personal beliefs. The thirteen precepts he outlines focus entirely on moral issues and he refuses to favor any specific doctrinal teachings. Franklin's approach underscores his independence and practicality in all spheres of life. He “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral Perfection” in a spirit of self-sufficient practicality which led him to renounce the authority of church dogma in favor of the natural virtues which could be ecumenically agreed upon and which a man of any religion could follow to become a model of “Probity and Integrity” (Franklin, 148, 158).

His moral code is marked above all by an ethic of tolerance which stems in part from a laudable desire to respect individual freedom, but also from a distorted definition of humility. In his list of virtues, humility stands at the end as a sort of addendum expressing his overarching concept of religious tolerance. “Imitate Jesus and Socrates” he instructs himself (Franklin, 150). The dichotomy in this instruction, obvious to anyone who understands Jesus as the Answer which Socrates stubbornly denies knowing, seems unapparent to Franklin. He strove for the classic Socratic modesty of “knowing that he knows nothing” and gains “at least the Appearance” of such humility, but it is not the humility of a Christian which arises from actual though unmerited knowledge of the Truth (Franklin, 157). Franklin's definition may indeed suffice for most practical purposes, and his primary concern was “the Utility and Excellency of [his] Method” (157). Through it he hoped to encourage human virtues among all sects. Reserving declarations of knowledge would promote respect for individual freedom with regard to beliefs about God and the nature of life, and adoption of a non-doctrinal code of virtue would, he believed, be in “every one's Interest... who wished to be happy even in this world” (Franklin, 158).

In evaluating the benefits of Franklin's purely moral religion, one must distinguish between its application in the sphere of government versus its application in the individual. Reducing religion to moral precepts discoverable by reason may be justified in the public sphere. Indeed, in a world where the religious turmoil of the 1500s and 1600s still reverberated throughout the West, removing governmental attachment to any “particular Sect” would be wise (Franklin, 157). However, within a church or an individual soul such tolerance becomes no more than false humility. Assuming that churches typically claim to be qualified to lead their members to the truth of Christ (or whatever else they hold to be ultimate truth), they must have certain convictions in context of which other beliefs are considered wrong. The human person, moreover, created for the truth as he is, will (like Franklin) be incapable of attaining true victory over pride, that “one of our natural Passions [most] hard to subdue,” if he does not recognize that there is a truth much deeper than the moral rules man can discover through unaided reason (Franklin, 160). Franklin's ethic of tolerance, then, is a useful guide for the government's approach to religious matters, but it cannot on its own produce the breed of upright citizens he hoped for (Franklin, 162).

Franklin was not alone in his distrust of arbitrary religious authority, this spirit having been predominant to some extent among the early colonists who had been driven from England by the new monolithic state religion. Principles of religious liberty as outlined in the First Article of the Bill of Rights underscore our Republican government's historic attachment to Franklin's Socratic humility with respect to religion. As long as churches have flourished within the consequent atmosphere of tolerance the tendency of this spirit to undermine individual citizens' prerogative to devote themselves to the Truth has been held in check. Today, however, as tolerance becomes more and more an autonomous religion in America and across the world, the Socratic mindset threatens to overwhelm Christian certainty of Truth. Franklin's style of tolerance is now many people's sole “religion” and the morality Franklin so valued, robbed of any firm foundational doctrine, is weakened to the point of collapse.

29 October, 2008

Grue and instantial reasoning

In one of the Philosophy Colloquium lectures I attended in the past few weeks, "A Grue-some Riddle of Induction," the lecturer presented some of the difficulties associated with the instantial model of inductive reasoning and suggested in conclusion that reasoning from causality could be a more productive and reliable procedure. The example of the fictional attribute "grue," which is defined as an object's greenness when observed at any time before a given future date and its blueness when observed at any time after that date proves the uncertainty of instantial reasoning. Almost no one would believe that an attribute such as grue exists, but a purely instantial manner of reasoning is utterly unequipped to disprove it: is all of your predicates are drawn solely from what is observable and that "future date" in grue's definition has not yet arrived, you cannot prove that every object we see as green now is not in fact grue. Examining the riddle from the perspective of Aristotlean causality, however, seems to offer some tentative resolution, though it cannot, it seems to me, resolve the question completely.

Technically Aristotle speaks of four "causes" of being: material, form (what it is for a thing to be), goal (why it exists), and the efficient cause (the thing that causes a change [addition of an attribute to a preexisting being, creation of a being] to start). I don't find all of these equally helpful for analyzing grue, however, (though this is admittedly not something I've thought about exhaustively by any means) so I'll focus on the material cause and the efficient cause.

Considered from the point of view of the "material" of colour, grue's postion becomes more tenuous. Of course, one must first agree that colours are caused by varying wavelengths of light hitting the retina of the eye in order to come to some sort of agreement about this subject. Then, if one agrees that green and blue are caused by different wavelengths of light, one must also agree that grue would necessarily have to include in its definition a change in material. It cannot therefore be a simple substance of which green and blue are complex predicates, but must itself be a complex predicate in which exists a change from one simple attribute to another. Moreover, if there is a change, there must be some efficient cause to initiate that change. There must be some reason that the green changes to blue in order for something to be grue.

The biggest potential problem with this argument is the opportunity it allows for an opponent to claim that arguing from our knowledge of the way colours work scientifically is in fact arguing in some sense from instantial reasoning. This brings me to another point. It seems, inconviently enough, that you can't really escape from performing some degree of induction when reasoning about material things. You have to reason from what you see and experience in order to have scientific knowledge about a subject. The only substantial difference between science and mere casual observation is in the degree of rigour involved in the exploration of a thing. It is in this way, then, that I can take an example, assume some basic characteristics of this example, and then use Aristotle's method of analyzing that thing by its causes. Notice that in the previous paragraph I specifically stated that some basic agreement on the way colours work is necessary in order for a person to agree with and follow an Aristotlean argument against the concept of grue. Reasoning from instances is a necessary part of our rational life, misleading as it may occasionally be. The best we can do, I believe, at least in reasoning about material objects, is to be as careful as possible when making instantial claims, and to try to limit the number made. On that basis we can build up ideas about what we experience using other methods of reasoning, such as causality, but without agreement on the instantially-based assumptions which underly and form the foundation of our arguments, even the most well-reasoned discussion can be easily undermined and refuted.

19 October, 2008


I just wanted to mention, in case anyone hasn't already heard, that Louis and Zélie Martin, parents of my patron saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, were beatified today, Sunday, October 19, 2008. Very exciting! I may try to post something on their lives later.

03 October, 2008


By now my French class has moved beyond the Romanic period and is starting to get into the literature of the second half of the 19th century. The first important school after romanticism was realism - a movement which sought to reflect with accurate detail the materialistic bourgeouis society that had arisen in France after the decline of Napolean. The writing has, for the most part, a slightly cynical flavour. The enthusiasms of society during the French Revolution and the reign of Napolean had been disappointed when it became clear that neither would actually lead to a utopian age of liberty, equality and fraternity. The people had settled for the ideal of prosperity instead, and artists like Balzac and Flaubert, seeing the ever-present woes of poverty, injustice, and greed as breed by bourgeouis society began to use their writing as a medium for criticizing 19th century civilization.

This disillusionment produced a rather violent move away from any tendencies to romanticize life, to see the world "through a colored lens" as Zola put it, or to use exaggerated, poetic, or decorative language. Many realists, particularly Flaubert, would write and rewrite each sentence obsessively, searching for "le mot juste" - "the right word". (On second thought, the search for the right word can be frustrating enough to be a large factor in creating the authors' depression. Forget all this stuff about social ills.) The artistic code of Realism demanded rigorous, exact observation of human behavior from an authorial standpoint that was as objective as possible. Of course, this doesn't guarantee real objectivity. You tend to find quite often in realism (think Dickens, even) rather one-sided focuses on certain problems that manipulate the reader into seeing the author's view of the problem as perfectly accurate.

01 October, 2008

The American Identity?

"The symbol at once of his city and his country" (Brogan, 97). So Hugh Brogan describes Benjamin Franklin in his discussion of the awakening of the American Revolution. Franklin appears as such a symbol repeatedly throughout Brogan's book: the iconic American, not necessarily at the forefront of every action but tirelessly involved in democratic activity, and always present as the standard by which Brogan defines the American character. His biography, accentuating his move from a strictly conventional upbringing to an enlightened, freethinking independence, serves for Brogan as a roadmap of the Revolution itself. Through the metamorphosis of his own character, Franklin becomes a prophet of the evolution of "the American people as such" (Brogan 167).

Franklin's life as recounted in Brogan's text is constructed of a series of small revolutions through which he attains to ever greater independence. Of solid Puritan stock, Franklin soon rejected that stern religion for a more mild deism, though Puritan culture still influenced him enough to preserve his strong sense of moral duty. Brogan describes Franklin as a "hedonistic Puritan" whose ability to set aside the more restrictive aspects of that religion illustrates the "extraordinary transformation that was threatening Puritanism in the eighteenth century" (Brogan, 97). After a brief apprenticeship to his brother, James, he threw off this restraint as well to begin "a rapid rise to great prosperity" in Philadelphia (Brogan, 97). "Middle class to the core," Franklin achieved each success by virtue of his own work - neither by superior birth nor by preexistent wealth. His "characteristically American practicality" was to some degree necessitated by this fact (Brogan, 97). In a society where popular acclaim bring about both fame and wealth, discoveries and inventions ought to be geared to the "masses" who will appreciate useful creations to any pure science or art, Brogan invites us to infer. The independent spirit he possessed often led him to initiate private movements to accomplish what "elsewhere was left to the authorities," and this habit as well he shared with this compatriots (Brogan, 97-8).

Such is the portrait Brogan presents of Franklin, and such is the model he offers for his account of the newly developed American identity. For Brogan this identity was forged in the disasters, sufferings, and triumphs of the war itself, though it had originated long before the fateful events of 1775 (Brogan, 167). If Franklin was the "prophet of the cult of rising in the world by hard work and honest worth," the war was the trial which proved to the ordinary American just how difficult the struggle to rise in the world as a nation would be (Brogan, 97). The industry and worth of Washington, who led a bedraggled group of patriots to victory over the world's most powerful empire, is a case in point of the spirit Franklin symbolized (Brogan, 170-71). War also heightened the fervor for independence throughout America by forcing the reality of revolution into every aspect of daily life. The heroism of young Andrew Jackson and thousands other young men like him was occasioned by the struggle, and their ardor for the cause kept alive by the example of men like Washington (Brogan, 184). Moreover, by "overturning... all the old political ways and means” the war demanded that any who would perhaps have preferred neutrality make a conscious decision for or against independence; the cause of liberty was thus popularized (Brogan, 168).

For Brogan, Franklin was a character at one with the common people of America: once a rebellious apprentice himself, his bid for freedom led to an independence as substantive as that which the agitation of mobs of "saucy boys" ultimately achieved. It seems immaterial to Brogan that his portrayal of the American mob as standing in sharp contrast to the popular image of a "uniquely discriminating, moderate, politically motivated mob" puts it into contrast as well with the character of Franklin (126). The legacy of rebellion itself, of throwing off the old order in favor of the new, formed the identity of the American people. The "apprenticeship of a statesman" succeeded in Franklin's life through his refusal to submit to the bonds of a restrictive society (Brogan, 99). Likewise the motley crew of "saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tars" was transformed into the mature American society that gave birth to the Constitution (John Adams, quoted in Brogan, 127). Revolution itself was the essence of the American character and its sustaining force by Brogan's view. It is unlikely, I believe, that Franklin would have agreed. Strong character needs to be based on something more than non-conformism, and freedom demands a strong character. "Only virtuous people," Franklin writes, "are capable of freedom" (Works of Benjamin Franklin, Sparks, 297). The admirable ethos born in eighteenth century America was connected to the people's spirit of independence, but had deeper roots than this alone. The early American's love of liberty was firmly planted in the basic conviction that "all men are created equal" and that justice laid out by our Creator gives each person the right to fight and die that these rights may endure.

24 September, 2008

Lying and S.A. positions (not a good combination)

Well, I was walking down the mall today at UD, and as I walked some very UD-ish trains of thought were running through my mind. I'm going to apply for one of four S.A. (student assistant) positions for my Rome semester(only two would be available to me: there are two positions for girls and two for guys). The application isn't bad at all really, but it does require two short essays. These are of the usual type for scholarship or student job applications: vague, feeling-oriented, and (it would seem) determined to force the applicant to write in a very self-congratulatory manner indeed.

Wouldn't life be so much simpler, I mused, if people couldn't lie? If you could just march up to the Rome Office and tell them, "Yes. I am quite sufficiently qualified for this job, and I understand everything it would entail," and they would have to believe you because you could be lying neither to them nor to yourself?

Hmmm, I wondered (conscientious UD student that I am). Would it be possible for human beings to be unable to lie and to still have free will? I suppose the answer is rather obvious once you begin to ponder the question, but looking at lying as an isolated action it might seem at first that we could possibly be unable to lie and still capable of choosing to sin in other ways (I know my manner of writing of free will in this post is a bit loose; that's not really my primary focus). But you know, every sin is essentially a lie, isn't it? I mean, most of us aren't walking around saying: "Oh, what fun, I think I'll commit a couple of sins today and be on my merry way." Not at all. Most of us are pretty well convinced that what we're doing is right. But that conviction itself rests on an untruth: we have, either intentionally or mistakenly, deceived ourselves as to the nature of good in relation to that action.

So, no, it seems that you can't really have free will without having the potential to lie. All men desire truth and goodness, if we're to believe Aristotle, so rejection of the ultimate Good requires one to believe falsely in the superior goodness of something else.

But it really is a pity about that Rome position.

22 September, 2008

Revolution Against a New Order

Two great revolutions shook the foundations of the Western world near the turn of the eighteenth century. The first took place in America. Its leaders demanded both their natural rights as human beings and their particular rights as Englishmen; debate, legislation, and the battlefield were the means by which the struggle proceeded. The second transpired in France, and its leaders initiated a reign of terror to achieve their purposes, invoking the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity as they “pulled down to the ground their monarchy, their church, their nobility, their law” and every other traditional institution (Edmund Burke, quoted in John Adams by McCullough, p.418). Both in character and motivation the two could hardly have been more different. Yet it is common among historians to portray them as being of essentially the same mold, whatever the contemporary testimony to the contrary. Thomas Jefferson's “Summary View of the Rights of British America” is just such a contemporary account. In it we find evidence to contradict Hugh Brogan's thesis that the American Revolution parallels that of the French in its attempts to overthrow an “old order” and to create a new, democratic system.

Despite the fact that the origin of the British empire was approximately simultaneous with the origin of the American colonies, Brogan's first move is to equate it and its mercantilist political and economic system with the old order of Europe (Brogan, 80-81). Thomas Jefferson has no such illusions. He lucidly marks out the various “encroachments” which imperial Britain had begun to make on the traditional rights of Englishmen in the colonies and is careful to draw attention to the lack of historical precedent for such usurpations, calling them “instance[s] of despotism to which no parallel can be produced in the most arbitrary ages of British history” (Jefferson, Para. 2). Invoking the natural rights of man and the customary privileges of English citizens, he accuses a new set of Parliamentary legislation of oppressing the colonies and thus forfeiting any rights it may have had over them.

Nor does Jefferson advocate the creation of the type of new democratic order which the French would later resort to, though Brogan, with his focus upon the activity of the “democratic” American mob, believes this to be the common aim of American Revolutionaries (Brogan, 126-27). Though objecting to the officious meddling of Parliament, Jefferson goes no further than to insist upon the colonists' right to their own legislature. This body of law makers would not have to be completely independent of England but could submit, together with Parliament, to the common executive authority of the King. Even the desire for an independent legislature, little as it had been implemented in previous centuries, was not new in principle. The English Parliament was, at least in theory, representative of the people of that kingdom. The sending of delegates from each part of the country accomplished a fairly comprehensive representation; America, however, had no representatives in Parliament at all. 'Can any one reason be assigned,” Jefferson asks, “why one hundred and sixty thousand electors in the island of Great Britain, should give law to four millions in the States of America?” (Jefferson, Para. 6). The Americans had a right to representative legislatures both as men and as British subjects. With Parliament's encroachments on this right “one free and independent legislature, hereby [took] upon itself to suspend the powers of another, free and independent as itself” (Jefferson, Para. 6). The Revolution would right this wrong, not bring about a new era of unbridled democracy, which the majority of American founders saw as dangerous to the health of any nation.

Demolition of an old order was not at the heart of the Revolution which Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots led. Far from being the “final shape” of the old order of Europe, eighteenth-century England was in fact the fruit of its relatively recent Protestant reformation and the resulting birth of the political concept of the hegemonic nation-state (Brogan, 76). While the similarly Protestant colonies were by no means advocating a return to the Catholic Middle Ages, they were willing to take a stand against attempts to build a unified state at the expense of personal liberty. Revolutionary as their implementation of their ideals may have been, the Americans drew inspiration not so much from vague concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity as from a firm conviction that they were, both as men and as British citizens, owed their traditional right to a representative legislature and the freedom to conduct their lives without arbitrary interference of an over controlling government - “rights which God, and the laws, have given equally and independently to all” (Jefferson, Para. 1).

19 September, 2008

Education in the Platonic dialogues

As the question of what people really know and what they don't know (and of whether true wisdom really is expressed in the infinitely unwieldy phrase "knowing that you know what you know and that you don't know what you don't know") is so relentlessly pursued at least in the undercurrents of each Socratic dialogue, it's not surprising that over the course these writings Plato offers several accounts of knowledge and education.

What may be surprising is that in "Meno" Socrates seems to deny that there is any such thing as teaching or learning. Indeed? What then, has his life been? Is not Socrates held up as the greatest of ancient teachers; one of the few who could clear the misinformed mind and enable the young to pursue truth? That's just the point. What Plato wants to accomplish here is to provoke readers to question what education really is. How does one in fact move from ignorance to knowledge?

His explanation for the phenomenon of "learning" in "Meno" is rather unconvincing, I find, though he may have been using it merely as a spur to further thought (as he so often and so aggravatingly does). Socrates claims that there really is no such thing as learning at all: what appears to be learning is only recollection of previous experiences(the soul being infinitely reincarnated and enjoying brief sojourns with the forms between lives). However the value of this theory as a whole concerns me less at the moment than one simple Platonic belief it reveals: knowledge cannot simply be given to another. A teacher cannot somehow infuse the student with knowledge, convenient as that might be for everyone concerned.

"Theaetetus" and the "Republic" give a more complete explanation of the concept at the heart of this belief. The educator, "Theaetetus" proposes, is like a midwife: he must help the student to give birth to new ideas. The "Republic" puts the same idea into another light. As the student, Socrates says, cannot be given knowledge, the teacher performs his task properly simply by turning the student towards the "light" of truth. Education, then, is akin to a conversion of sorts.

The ramifications of such a view could heavily influence education in the modern world where schools and universities focus all too often on filling students with information, preparing them for tests, and ensuring that they make the grade to go on and take more tests. Few now consider preparation of the mind to recognize and receive truth as the essence of education (or at least, not in practice). Yet only by making the student an active part of the learning process rather than a passive receiver of information can education go beyond utilitarian preparation for a career to a pursuit of reality. There is no way for the encounter with reality to be impersonal, and by withholding the tools necessary for such an encounter, modern education cripples students, who like all humans have an innate desire for what is real and true.

Modern education suffers from this problem acutely because of our culture's stubborn refusal to recognize that there is any objective reality. However the true education has always been difficult to achieve in any culture due to the pride innate in our fallen nature. Humility is the key to both the teacher's and the student's success in such an endeavor. The teacher must be willing to forget himself to allow the student the chance to discover the truth. He cannot end in imposing his own views on the student, but neither should he encourage the student to pursue ideas unconnected with the truth. The foremost devotion of the teacher must be to reality, and the student will, if in turn he or she is willing to put forth an effort, be freed from self-centeredness and ideology that hamper pursuit of truth. This freeing must be in some sense mutual - the learner and the one who offers knowledge must both struggle to "give birth" to new ideas and understanding.

18 September, 2008

Philosophy Colloquium

More or less on the side I'm taking a one credit philosophy colloquium this semester. It's quite a bit of fun, and a good way to get in some extra philosophy wihtout doing something insane like taking 18 credits...instead of only 17...

Anyway, it's a pretty cool format: each Friday there's an hour long lecture led by a different Philosophy professor. There's no set theme to all the classes, so students can come to whatever lectures they want to if they're not signed up for the class. If you are signed up, you basically just have to come and then write three short reflective essays throughout the semester.

So far we've had three classes, all of which have been interesting. The first dealt in a very inventive manner with the question (so pressing nowadays) of whether objective reality (or truth, or definitions, or whatever you prefer to call it)should take precedence over subjective experience. As the professor put it "if my favorite ice cream flavour is strawberry, but I get the strawberry flavour only when I eat the mint chocolate chip ice cream, which is really my favorite?" I'm sure you can imagine how amusing and fascinating that discussion was, especially considering that he never explained his point in any terms other than the above ice cream metaphor and people seemed to have a really hard time realizing that he was talking about something so pertinent at all.

The next was on identity vs. existence - does it matter more that something exists as a seperate object in its own right, or that it is in some sense the same as other individual objects of the same type? (An example would be three identical copies of St. Augustine's Confessions; it would be absurd to say that two people reading different copies hadn't read the same book).

That's all I really have to say right now. It's not very interesting, unfortunately, when all I do is write "ooohhh, this certain thing was oh so interesting buuuuuut... I don't have time to elaborate". Oh well. I really ought to work on writing an essay for afore-discussed class, so I'm signing off for a noble purpose.

17 September, 2008

Larmartine the lachrymose

This is the first semester that I'm not taking an English class. That, however, is quite all right, because I'm getting a good dose of literature through my French Literary Tradtions course. Currently we're focusing on the French Romantic period, which subject we kicked off by taking a look at Chateaubriand - the forefather of French romanticism.

The next author we're discussing is Alphonse de Lamartine, famous primarily for his poem "Le Lac" (the Lake). Just as we saw with Chateaubriand, there's a rather extreme emphasis on emotion in Lamartine's writing. Instead of dealing with the identity crisis of a young man with no faith in life however, "Le Lac" centers around the author's grief at the death of his lover, Julie Charles. I definitely have mixed feelings about this one.

The lyricism of the work is stunning:

Temps jaloux, se peut-il que ces moments d’ivresse,
Où l’amour à longs flots nous verse le bonheur,
S’envolent loin de nous de la même vitesse
Que les jours de malheur ?

(Very approximate translation:
Jealous time, can it be that these moments of drunkeness
When love pours down on us in streams,
Will fly from us with the same haste
As days of unhappiness?)

This verse is typical of the poem as a whole. The lines are measured by number of syllables since French is an essentially unstressed language; as you repeat them aloud, they roll from your tongue, too long to let you get caught up in the meter alone, but smooth enough to lull you into a dream-like state similar to the author's own.

The major conceit of the poem is that nature (here, the lake specifically) can in a sense sympathize with the author's desolation. It can at least fulfill the poet's wish when he demands: "Gardez de cette nuit, gardez, belle nature,/ Au moins le souvenir" (Guard this night, guard, beautiful nature, at least the memory). He finishes the work with an appeal to the lake to keep his love alive through the waves, the breezes, the noises, the rocks, and the roses which will all remind him of his beloved.

I can see a great deal of merit in the poem, most specifically the lyricism. But I suppose I'm too inclined to a more logical view of things to be won over by the poem as a whole. It's far too lachrymose for my taste. Not that emotion in art is at all a bad thing - my favorite genre of literature, 19th century Russian, is abundantly emotional; it's just rather difficult to not be put off by orgies of tears and wallowings in lost love that last for verse after verse. It's a pretty piece, but really Lamartine doesn't say much of anything beyond "I'm sad. I'm terribly sad. Time was too short. Nature will have to help me cope. I'm sad. I'm terribly sad." I'm sure it was quite heartbreaking, but it's hardly a fresh theme, and has very little in the way of substance to offer as recompense.

13 September, 2008

René - Translation

I apologize in advance for any mistakes in translating - I'm still quite new to this. Never a bad idea to practice though! You can definitely get the idea here at least.

"The absolute solitude, the spectacles of nature soon plunged me into a state nearly impossible to describe. Without relations, without friends, alone, so to speak, on the earth, having no loved ones, I was overwhelmed by a superabundance of life. Sometimes I would suddenly blush, and I felt the colour of streams of boiling lava in my heart; sometimes I uttered involuntary cries, and the night was as troubled in my dreams as in my sleepless moments. I lacked something to fill the abyss of my existence; I descended into a valley, I climbed the mountain, calling with all the force of my desires the ideal object of a future brightness; I embraced it in the winds, I would believe I heard it in the laments of the river; all was this imaginary phantom, even the stars in the heavens and the principle of life in the universe.

"Nonetheless, this state of calm and trouble, of poverty and richness, was not without some charms: one day I amused myself by stripping the leaves off a branch of a stream-side willow, and attaching an idea to each leaf that the current carried off. A king who feared to lose his crown through a sudden revolution would not feel distress as vivid as mine at each accident that threatened the debris of my branch. O feebleness of mortals! o childhood of the human heart, which never grows up! See then to what degree of puerility our superb reason can descend! And is it not true that many men attach their destiny to things of as little value as my willow leaves?

"But how to express this multitude of fleeting sensations that I experienced on my walks? The sounds that the passions emit in a solitary heart resemble the murmure that the winds and waters make in the silence of a desert: one feels them, but one cannot describe them."

I'd welcome suggestions about the last lines in the 1st and 3rd paragraph.

12 September, 2008


To give a better idea of Chateaubriand's stamp of Romanticism (in his case, it might be more accurate to say "pre-Romanticism") I'm going to publish a small sample from René. The title character -suppsedly a literary version of Chateaubriand's younger self - narrates here. The emotional contortions he goes through in the text are fairly painful to follow, but not unconvincing. You can sympathize with René's troubles despite the fact that it's fairly obvious that what he needs is a good bash over the head with some common sense (G.K. Chesterton-style common sense - the kind that answers the tough questions of life and is blunt enough to tell people when to stop moping and start living). It's reassuring to know that Chateaubriand did return to the Faith shortly after writing this - the main character's despair would seem quite a bit bleaker without the background knowledge that this author at least, found what he was so melancholy without.

Sorry for the French to those who don't understand it. I'm going to post my translation directly after this, since this post is getting too long.

" La solitude absolue, le spectacle de la nature, me plongèrent bientôt dans un état presque impossible à décrire. Sans parents, sans amis, pour ainsi dire, sur la terre, n'ayant point encore aimé, j'étais accablé d'une surabondance de vie.
Quelquefois je rougissais subitement, et je sentais couler dans mon coeur comme des ruisseaux d'une lave ardente ; quelquefois je poussais des cris involontaires, et la nuit était également troublée de mes songes et de mes veilles. Il me manquait quelque chose pour remplir l'abîme de mon existence : je descendais dans la vallée, je m'élevais sur la montagne, appelant de toute la force de mes désirs l'idéal objet d'une flamme future ; je l'embrassais dans les vents ; je croyais l'entendre dans les gémissements du fleuve ; tout était ce fantôme imaginaire, et les astres dans les cieux, et le principe même de vie dans l'univers.

" Toutefois cet état de calme et de trouble, d'indigence et de richesse, n'était pas sans quelques charmes : un jour je m'étais amusé à effeuiller une branche de saule sur un ruisseau et à attacher une idée à chaque feuille que le courant entraînait. Un roi qui craint de perdre sa couronne par une révolution subite ne ressent pas des angoisses plus vives que les miennes à chaque accident qui menaçait les débris de mon rameau. O faiblesse des mortels ! ô enfance du coeur humain qui ne vieillit jamais ! voilà donc à quel degré de puérilité notre superbe raison peut descendre ! Et encore est-il vrai que bien des hommes attachent leur destinée à des choses d'aussi peu de valeur que mes feuilles de saule.

" Mais comment exprimer cette foule de sensations fugitives que j'éprouvais dans mes promenades ? Les sons que rendent les passions dans le vide d'un coeur solitaire ressemblent au murmure que les vents et les eaux font entendre dans le silence d'un désert : on en jouit, mais on ne peut les peindre."

09 September, 2008


François-René de Chateaubriand, founder of the French romantic movement, is the first author my French Literary Traditions class is covering this semester. He wrote at the very beginning of the 19th century, only a few years after the French Revolution.

He seems to have been a rather interesting chap. He grew up in what he describes as having been a very dark, gloomy castle in Brittany where he developed a close friendship with his sister Lucille and a fairly dysfunctional relationship with his father. When the Revolution broke out, he was initially sympathetic, but, disillusioned by its violence, he went off to America. It appears that American culture - and more importantly the "American myth" of independent man (particularly exemplified by the Indians) in nearly the state of nature - influenced him deeply, because the country is the setting of several of his works (Atala and René) This trip also reveals him as a bit of a liar: he makes a fair number of outrageous claims in his writing, swearing that he met George Washington, lived with the Indians, visited Niagra Falls, and encountered a fair number of other stereotypically American entities (Niagra Falls, by historical records of his journey is the only of these things he had any likelihood of having seen). Rather lovable.

Almost all of his work is (so I read) strongly autobiographical. He wrote, in fact, that "We are convinced that the great writers have told their own story in their works. One only truly describes one's own heart by attributing it to another, and the greater part of genius is composed of memories" (Génie du christianisme). There are two characteristic elements of his writing which would influence the Romantic movement as a whole quite strongly. First of these is the plethora of stirring, detailed descriptions of nature and emphasis on the purity of the world unmarred by the noise of human society. Second but just as important is the attention he pays to human emotions: these he analyzes practically to a pulp in places, and that's exactly what his many successors and admirers would be doing for quite a few years to come.

On his return to France, he had a rather odd but apparently sincere reconversion to Christianity. It seems that much of his reasoning is quite tied up in his aesthetic responses to the beauty of Christianity - the beauty which formed the central argument for the Catholic religion in his book Génie du christianisme (The Genius of Christianity). Hopefully he found a bit more to value in Catholicism than its aesthetic value eventually; he probably did: God can build on much stranger foundations.

08 September, 2008

Hugh Brogan's Saga of Settlement

In “The Settlement,” Book I of his overview of American history (see The Penguin History of the USA), Hugh Brogan presents to a presumably gullible audience two accounts of the English colonization of America. Focusing on the first colonies in the south (Virginia) and north (Massachusetts and the rest of New England) respectively, he sets up a contrast between the two halves of the American colonial coast which provides background for the subsequent development of the American character. The nature of the Virginian settlements he judges entirely economic, ending his discussion of these with a withering condemnation of “the greed of seventeenth-century Englishmen” (Brogan, 29). By contrast, he presents the original motives for migration to New England as largely religious. Common knowledge of the eventual outcome of struggles between north and south make the implications of his comparison evident: the ideal of the hardworking, honest , earnest American of generations to come would be rooted not in the southern pseudo-aristocracy, but in the values of the Puritan north.

Having taken John Smith – the intelligent, highly motivated leader of the Virginians – as the model for the settlers of the American south, Brogan moves to the figure of John Winthrop when he considers the founding ethos of New England. Pious, idealistic, reasonable, and full of integrity, Winthrop seems by Brogan's account to be almost too good to be true. One might argue that the “unreal” quality of this founder's virtue is exactly what Brogan intends to emphasize. No sooner does he finish lauding Winthrop's legacy to America than he begins to cast doubt on the permanence of that legacy. The resulting shift to an account of the erosion of the “City on a Hill” ideal is hardly subtle. The decline of religious sentiment into economic sense is chronicled in detail. “Fishing proved almost as lucrative as John Smith had forseen” the author comments, hinting wryly at a fundamental connection between two cultures which had at first appeared nearly as polar opposites (Brogan, 47). The outline of Winthrop's (and his associates') futile efforts to correct the secularization of Puritan society ends with the bland statement: “the saga was over” (Brogan, 49).

So soon? Brogan is careful to classify Winthrop's mark on America as “indelible” (Brogan 43). Yet he proceeds to focus on New England's alleged disintegration into a materialistic society all too similar in some respects to its southern neighbors. One perceives that behind Brogan's determination to convince readers of his belief in the persistence of the “sober, respectable, self-reliant, energetic” spirit of the Puritans is an obsessive tendency to state things in the past tense. The “American character” he applauds at the end of this chapter “was” admirable when “the course of American history” was still in progress – when American culture had yet to fully descend to pure materialism, he hints (50). The saga of settlement had its heroes in the fathers of New England, but for Brogan, it seems, this saga is over and its heroes' strengths no more than a memory.

26 July, 2008

The Dark Knight

Wow. This movie was truly amazing. Read this article from First Things to get some really interesting insights on Christopher Nolan's filmmaking and the philosophy behind this film.

Heart of the Matter

I finished reading my first Grahame Greene novel, The Heart of the Matter recently. Now, everything I'm going to say here will assume knowledge of the plot, so if you dislike spoilers don't read on.

The last few lines of the book give the sense that they are absolutely crucial to any interpretation of the book. Yet I've been having a rather difficult time trying to decipher them. At this point, Police Inspector Scobie (the novel's main character)has just committed suicide, and his wife is discussing the tragedy with the local priest.

"(Mrs. Scobie) He must have known that he was damning himself."

..."For goodness' sake, Mrs. Scobie, don't suppose that you - or I - know a thing about God's mercy. ... It may be an odd thing to say - when a man's as wrong as he was - but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God."

"He certainly loved no one else."

"And you may be in the right of it there, too."

Did Greene intend us to take the priest's final analysis of Scobie as accurate? All things considered, I'm inclined to think that he did. It's the "last word" of the book, so to speak. The priest, though not a saint, seems to be a man of integrity and of real faith in the Church. But if one accepts this analysis, what can one make of it?

A little backstory is definitely necessary. (How, indeed, could the ending of any book be quite comprehensible outside the context of the book itself?) Scobie's driving characteristic (in the literal sense that it really provides the motive for just about every one of his actions) is an overwhelming desire that those around him be "happy". However, he believes hat he can keep others happy by keeping them content. By being perfectly kind and creating an atmosphere of peace, whether the peace is true or not. This falsity is a problem from the beginning, but the habit of killing those around him with kindness leads to a fatal conclusion when he is faced with the choice of "what's right" versus "what will make everyone else comfortable". "In human relations, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths" he believes, and even the reply from God he seems to hear in his prayer, "[to do what I ask] one of them must suffer, but can't you trust me to see that the suffering isn't too great?" isn't enough to make him choose what's right.

It's easy to see how, for all of his compassion, Scobie's love for those in his vicinity was empty. You can't really love someone by hiding the truth. Comfort is not the greatest good which you can provide another, especially when it comes at the cost of truthful and meaningful relationships with others. Moreover, at least initially, Sobie's main concern seems to be with his own peace - domestic peace in his relationship with his wife, the mental peace of having "done his duty" to those around him.

But how could the priest possibly say that Scobie "really loved God"? Scobie was fully aware that his suicide was the one of the ultimate offences against God. However, it seems as though the "heart of the matter" - his real, though distorted, love - lies in the fact that he was willing to "hurt" God in order to put an end to the pain which he knows he will continue to cause Him. Once again, it's heresy of the grossest kind. But it is perhaps the case that by rejecting all possibility of his own comfort, his own peace in a life which he knows will be inextricably tied to God, whether through an eternal rejection or eternal acceptence of God, he has shown some hint of the love necessary for salvation. His hopeless explanation, "I can't shift my responsibility onto you. I love you, and I won't go on insulting you at your own altar" does perhaps contain just enough love to leave him open to God's mercy. God, whose "weakness", according to Greene, is precisely the enormity of His love, can turn even Scobie's assault against this into a saving grace. "Don't suppose, Mrs. Scobie, that you - or I - know a thing about God's mercy."

16 July, 2008

And now for some recommendations

Well, I've been plowing through mountains of books lately, and after this long but not particularly arduous month of reading, I'm putting out a small list of "must reads" for anyone who might be interested. Think of it as the literary equivalent of the Oscars, though I can't say I bothered to hire a would-be comedian.

History has been the big summer subject for me so far, especially early American to get a bit of background on the time period I'll be covering in American Civ I next semester. The best of those I've completed are:

1. 1776 by David McCullough, always an enjoyable author.
2. Washington's General, by Terry Golway, who writes here about the often underappreciated Nathanael Greene, one of Washington's most trusted generals and winner of the war in the south.
3. A Few Acres of Snow By Robert Leckie. This covers all of the wars between France and England in the New World (and believe me, more went on than just the French and Indian War!), tying them very nicely to the various swings of alliance and arguments going on simultaneously in Europe and provided most of the impetus for the colonial wars. He does tend to jump around a bit, referring to events that are fairly well out of the historical scope of his subject, but makes up for it by the interestingness of many of his other asides (about the culture, commerce, housing, etc of the time). Another plus is his fairly detailed treatment of Isaac Jogue's story and his inclusion of the tale of my own ancestor, Guillaume Couture.

Another history book I have to mention, though it has little to do with American history is Warren Carroll's Founding of Christendom. It starts from basically prehistory and really approaches history in what I believe is the only sensible way: from the perspective of salvation history rather than from a Hegelian or Marxian viewpoint which subordinates the human person and God Himself to the progress of time.

Another work I have to mention is Pope Benedict's Introduction to Christianity. It's one of the best things I've read in ages. I've noticed that a lot of Catholic writings that have come out lately tend to approach subjects in a very similar manner; this book astounded me by the originality of its approach to about every topic it covers. And it's original in the best of ways, of course: very much like Pope John Paul's writings in the logic of its arguments and the warmth of its appeal to modern society, but also similar in its conviction that God cannot ultimately be comprehended, that modern culture needs to move beyond its preoccupation with fathoming everything. It also gave me some very clear answers to why Plato isn't enough, to why I can't help reading him without coming away dissatisfied, and some very interesting insights into the connection between the rationalists of ancient Greek culture and of modernity. I'll probably go into this last subject in a bit more depth in some future entries.

Until then, I'll sign off, hoping that this entry has let everyone know that I haven't fallen off the edge of the world after all, and am still planning on (more or less) keeping up with this writing.

07 June, 2008

A Queen of Scotland, an Irish arist, and English Catholics

The rather odd mix of the title rather sums up the current topics of literary/historical discussion at my house right now. Not only have I just completed a rather large biography of Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser; I am also reading James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and my mother is reading God's Secret Agents, a very interesting-sounding chronicle of the activities of Catholic priests in Elizabethan England.

Perhaps one of the features of the Elizabethan period which has struck us the most is the general hypocrisy of the English government when it came to the treatment of Catholics. Obsessed with appearance of legality, Parliment, manipulated by men like Cecil, Walsingham, and other ministers would pass laws designed so that their ostensible aim was the laudible one of preventing treachery against the English government, but which were worded in a manner such that they would apply to specific people or groups of people. Rather aggravating looking back on it all.

I don't really have all that much to say about "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" yet because I've only just started it. Right now Joyce is writing in a very disjoined and stream-of-conciousness-y fashion. I wouldn't be surprised if he's doing this to reflect the way a child reasons. It should be interesting to see how it pans out.

Anyway, I can't really call this post anything more than a simple update, since I've said basically nothing of substance for three full paragraphs. Jolly good!

01 June, 2008

Pleasure and Beauty: Wilde's Picture

The Picture of Dorian Gray has been on my list of favorite novels ever since I first read it, though I'll admit I didn't get around to that particular accomplishment until just over a year ago. I was re-reading the last few chapters of the book the other day, and was once more struck by the beauty of the language, the amount of pity Wilde is able to evoke in the reader for the depraved protagonist, and the starkness of the conclusion.

The book's basic conceit, of course, is that Dorian, while still a relatively innocent young man, makes a wish that he will forever retain his youthful beauty while the effects of age and excess are transferred to his portrait (painted by his friend, Basil Hallward). Soon corrupted by the influence of the older Lord Henry, his life becomes a mad pursuit of pleasure which destroys those who enter his sphere. He nevertheless remains young, beautiful, and to all appearances perfectly pure; his wish has been mysteriously granted and the portrait alone bears the outward effects of his sin.

The haunting conclusion to the tale chronicles Dorian's growing despair at the hideousness of the picture after he has spent years in a life of callous debauchery. His explicit choice to designate pleasure as his highest good, to define it as happiness in a sense, has led only to depair, coldness, and cruelty. Wilde never seems to deny pleasure's goodness, but remorselessly displays its insufficiency as the ultimate end of life.

One can hardly avoid thinking of Aristotle at this point: "All men by nature desire happiness", but few are able to discover where it truly lies. The attractiveness of pleasure (or power, or wealth, or honour, as the case may be for each person) dupes many into equating such a lesser good with the highest end of human life - even when those in error are not aware of explicitly making such an equation.

Attractiveness aside, it is intrinsically impossible for a good like pleasure to satisfy human longings for something higher. Thus we see in Dorian also a passion for beauty. He corrupts this throughout most of the novel by treating this passion as merely another desire to be gratified. External beauty, he thinks at first, will be enough for him; his natural beauty and the beauty he attempts to create by surrounding himself with decadence should suffice. Yet it is not enough. Somewhere in the soul, there is a longing for true beauty that runs deeper than his. The picture makes it impossible to deny that his physical appearance is no more than a facade, and the knowledge of the hideous state of his soul torments him.

Though Dorian would not have recognized the fact (perhaps even Wilde did not fully when he wrote it), this yearning for the expunging of his hypocrisy, for genuine beauty, for truth, is in the end - from a Catholic viewpoint - a yearning for God. God is Beauty. He is Truth. Without Him, every other good becomes cold, cruel, void of meaning. Like Hallward, Wilde has painted a picture of a soul - a picture of every soul in a sense - and in its center is the gaping hole of which St. Augustine speaks: the God-shaped hole which makes every human heart "restless until it rests in Him".

29 May, 2008

Just a Note

Well, it's summer. I'm home from college. I'm on vacation. My posting frequency should be increasing, not decreasing. Yet that's hardly been the case. Sorry to everyone who reads this blog for not posting for the last few weeks! My writing has been rather confined to writing essays for scholarships. It's a painful process due to the extreme inanity of almost all the topics. I hope it at least pays off!

27 April, 2008

"The Windhover"

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

The first half of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover,” is composed of a rich, lingering description of a falcon’s early morning flight. At the sight the poet is caught up in a moment of awe similar to the falcon’s own high “ecstasy” (5). Yet the moment moves beyond the purely sensual experience to relate the grandeur of the falcon to the glory of Christ and the beauty the poet’s soul can achieve in following its divine master.

The imagery of the first half emphasizes the power and the mastery of the bird, which, paradoxically, is most conclusively proved when the creature allows itself to be swept along by a powerful gust of wind. On first appearing, the falcon is introduced as “daylight’s dauphin” – heir to the kingdom of the day – who strides the “steady air” effortlessly (2, 3). Then his motion changes: from his hovering poise over the earth, he now swings and plunges smoothly along a stray gust of air. The reader does not even discover the “big wind” which precipitates the action until after the poet has already depicted the falcon’s masterful plunge into it, and the omission serves to strengthen the sense of the bird’s invincibility. Though it allows itself to be overcome by the wind, this “defeat” only adds to its power in flight. The sight and stirring of the poet’s “heart in hiding” are drawn together into a single long instant in this stanza, as the feeling of timeless awe and quality of intensely present action are strengthened by the reiteration of words ending with the suffix “-ing” (7).

The transition from this vision to the poet’s reflection about it is clearly marked by a switch to a repeating b-c rhyme scheme. Describing the scene as indicating “brute beauty and valour and act,” the poet seems to enjoin his own assumed “airs” and “pride” to “buckle” – “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here / Buckle!” (9-10). The same injunction also serves as a continued description of the falcon’s victorious flight as the bird simultaneously “buckle[s]” down to grapple with the wind and conquers it by buckling under it. All the beauty of this single vision from nature draws the poet’s mind to Christ, as he joyfully proclaims that “the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion / Times told lovlier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!” (10-11). Like the falcon, Christ’s defeat of the power that assailed him – death – was completed only as he allowed himself to be momentarily defeated by it. In this act of submission, the true “dauphin” of light in the world revealed power and beauty beyond previous imagination (2).

Despite the brilliance of the falcon’s flight and the subsequent reverie, the poet observes that his conclusion is “no wonder” at all, really (12). By simply plodding along behind the plow of daily life, every soul can make the “plough down sillion / Shine” (12). Every person is called to sacrifice himself to the daily struggle of coming to life through dying to oneself. It is in imitating the falcon’s descent and Christ’s “fall” that any human can best imitate their mastery and intransient beauty, the poet concludes. Even the most apparently unprepossessing object, such as the “blue-bleak embers” which remain after the fire seems extinguished, gain infinite grandeur if they will “Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion” (14).

12 April, 2008

Paradise Lost continued...

Well, I'm much further along in Paradise Lost by now. My general impressions of the book are still quite similar to those outlined in the last post. However, some of my likes and dislikes in the work are now rather more specific.

Probably my favourite scene in the epic is Satan's temptation of Eve. Really it's one of the few that I've genuinely enjoyed a lot. Satan still seems very much to be the most successful character, in my opinion, although I don't quite comprehend how he could be interpreted as the hero of the epic. It's precisely the intenseness of his evil that makes him such a convincing character, not, I think any sympathy on the part of Milton. The temptation itself is marvelously subtle; so subtle in fact, that it hardly even comes off as unreasonable at first glance.

It starts with flattery, which given the tendency to vanity which Milton has already revealed in Eve (in her account of her first few moments of life), isn't a surprise. However, it very quickly moves beyond such initial superficiality and becomes much more nuanced. The main temptation is that Eve, the most breathtakingly beautiful creature on the earth, should become "a Goddess among Gods, ador'd and serv'd / By Angels numberless" (9.547-48). The bait is made more convincing by Satan's disguise as a serpent. He, whom Eve knows should be unable to speak, nonetheless approaches her, speaks to her, praises her vast superiority to him, and then slyly mentions that he knows how she could become even more worthy of admiration. Then he claims that he has been raised above the rest of the beasts to become "interior man" by virtue of a certain fruit - the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Eve's initial reluctance to eat the fruit which God has forbidden her is attenuated by the sight of a serpent whose (alleged) experience seems to hint that God has not been entirely open about the Tree. If a beast can be raised to manhood, why not a human to Godhead?

The argument is clever enough so far, but one last touch clinches the subtlety of its deceitfulness. Perhaps, the serpent suggests, the fruit is simply there as a test, not of your obedience, but of your courage. What if God has decreed death for those who eat of the tree only because He wished to see if you humans care more for life than for knowledge? If He is in earnest, on the other hand, what kind of God is it who forbids His creatures such a positive good? Surely not a just one. And "Not just, not God; not feard then, nor obeyd".

Considering the sinlessness of Adam and Eve before the fall, it's hard tp conceive of a temptation that might in fact be appealing. Not knowing and incapable of imagining how prelapsarian man would have thought, neither I nor Milton nor anyone would be able to say for certain whether an argument phrased similarly would at all have been convincing to the historical Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, in the context of the book, and the fact that here Milton must appeal to the imagination, it's a very successful depiction, in which the argument is presented in a way which we could at least imagine to be appealing to one who had no reason to wish to offend and no concupiscence to make offense particularly easy.

In an aside, I'm not sure exactly how much Milton even believed in concupiscence, and am unsure just how prelapsarian he considered Eve to be. But that's a subject for another post.

30 March, 2008

Miltonic musings

Well, we've finally moved on from Dante to Milton in my literature class. For me, the transition has been a rather sad one, since I love The Divine Comedy almost to excess; it's sad to stop delving into it every day for class (although we do all have to write a large research paper on the book, happily). Milton by contrast I find rather irritating. I'm trying my level best to enjoy the book, but I rather feel towards it as I do about Moby Dick - I can recognize its excellence as a work of literature, but it will never shape my life as the Comedy, Crime and Punishment, Till We Have Faces, or any of those other marvelous favourites of mine have.

Nonetheless, I'm pleased to find that I don't detest the epic. I did in high school, mostly due, I believe to a lack of maturity in my reading: I found it unnecessarily dense and didactic. I still think it's more didactic than would be ideal, but with the guidance of my amazingly brilliant literature professor, I'm beginning to discern the underlying cleverness of many scenes, and even occasional flashes of irony in the narrative and descriptions. As it happens, all these actually interesting parts are the ones with the devils or Adam and Eve. We get to see Satan lying to himself and his followers and to try to follow his twisted logic through all its convolutions. We also get some actually quite interesting points about the nature of rebellion from a being Who is totally good and very good poetic analysis of why any creature would want to do that.

Oddly enough, I believe that the best ideas about God Himself that appear in the poem are those you can discern by interpretation of the demonic accounts of their hatred of their Creator. Through them you see what is not true about God, and even - in some rare moments such as Satan's soliloquy at the beginning of book 4 - what is true beyond the denial of even the diabolical.

Milton's depiction of God as an actual character by contrast seems to be crippled by a certain pretentiousness and an overeagerness on God-the-character's part to justify Himself to the readers. My friends and I complain about this aspect of the book more than any other, I think - certainly over dramatizing the problem to an extent, but aware nonetheless that the problem is a tangible one. How can you make God into a character? If He is as ineffable as Milton believes, the attempt seems nearly hubristic. And really, it doesn't come off well at all in my opinion. Very often Milton interprets God's actions in such a manner: "God to render man inexcusable sends Raphael to admonish him of his obedience" (opening to Book 5). The poem constantly seems to put God into a defensive position which begs the question of whether Milton's God really is as just as He should be.

29 March, 2008

Inclination vs. action

I was reading a Dorothy Sayers essay about Dante the other day in which she discussed the manner in which the souls in Inferno have become identified with their sin. She was quite emphatic in pointing out the fundamental distinction between Dante's and the readers' journey through hell and the status of the sinners within hell. Those who remain in hell have chosen sin through a deliberate action of the will: an action which could not be more dissimilar from that of Dante and the readers who only witness the punishments to see what accepting the temptations of sin will lead to.

This point rather leads her off onto a tangent. She tells of a letter she once received from a student with very definite ideas about psychology (a young man of that type so thoroughly convinced of his own modernity in accepting certain ideas that he'll hold onto them far past the threshold of illogicality). He tried, she writes, to persuade her that her writing of mystery stories revealed a suppressed impulse to actually commit a murder, basing his idea on the assumption that the unconscious is the sum of the mind and ignoring the function of rational choice in defining a person's state.

Sayers relates this odd correspondence to her belief that it is invalid to identify impulse and the human unconscious too exclusively with the activity of the mind. Ultimately, the tendency to say that the unconcious is all that genuinely exists in the mind leads one to reject both intellect and will (two fundamental concepts for Dante) - the rational and directive capacities of the mind. To reject these two is to reject precsely that aspect of the mind which makes us human (a very convenient rejection if you want to define man as no more than a particularly clever ape). If, as the student she writes of says, the impulse to write a murder story and the impulse to murder are one and the same, we would have to admit that simple thinking about something is morally equivalent to doing it.

But wait... perhaps you're not supposed to talk about morals nowadays... Nonetheless, even if you were to discount all language of morality, you must admit that such an idea promotes something of a logical fallacy: it identifies an impulse that is actualized as being identical to an impulse that is merely felt; it refuses to consider action and views consideration as all that counts. No assent of will can distinguish the actor from the mere contemplator. The view discounts the decision to either act on or reject an impulse and holds that only the impulse itself is of any account.

In more Dantean language, it denies sin by making temptation itself into the only thing that counts in the human mind. Sin is inflicted on people by circumstances which cause temptation to arise, rather than being - as Dante believed - a concious choise of the individual's will to act according to temptation and against what the intellect informs it is right.

19 March, 2008

Spring Break

So, our spring break at the University of Dallas this year coincides, conveniently enough, with Holy Week. It's great to have the entire week off, as I always used to at home. I'm staying with friends in St. Louis (because plane tickets to Maine at this time of year are perfectly outrageous), and it's jolly fun.

I've been to see most of the impressive sights of the city - the Arch most particularly. And of course, there are other places you don't hear about so often that my friend's family has taken me to see. There's "The Hill", where everyone is Italian and quite proud of it in a way that reminds me of Tipperary Hill's Irish-ness in Syracuse, NY. Fitz's is a neat restaurant which specializes in root beer floats and a sort of 50s-ish atmosphere. I also was able to see the city's "Old Cathedral", dedicated to St. Louis IX of France. It actually hadn't even occurred to me that he would be the patron, considering how rarely you see things dedicated to him, but it makes sense, of course.

13 February, 2008

Mimesis - "Odysseus' Scar"

One of the "big books" here on campus - at least in the professors' circles - is Erich Auerbach's Mimesis , which discusses, as the subtitle says "the representation of reality in Western literature." I recently had to read chapter one, “Odysseus’ Scar”, for a theology class, and it's quite interesting. Here Auerbach contrasts the literary styles of the Homeric epic and Hebrew Scripture, demonstrating the vastly different means through which each work depicts reality.

Whereas the Homeric epic lays out a panorama of life, meticulously recreating events in detail, the Old Testament focuses on select aspects of events and characters that relate directly to a specific message. Comparing the scene when Odysseus’ nurse, Eurykleia, recognizes her master to the scene of Abraham’s journey up the mountain to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Auerbach points out that the Homeric poem “scrupulously externalize[s]” the minutest thoughts, actions, and feelings of the characters. The Homeric approach brings each facet of the legend - Eurykleia's reaction, Odysseus' gestures in silencing her, etc - to the foreground of the tale.In contrast, the Abraham narrative directly recounts only scattered details of the episode - God's command, Abraham's prompt response. The brand of actions highlighted in Abraham’s story all center around a single theme – his unswerving obedience to God’s will - and the paucity of detail makes the few, seemingly minor, details which are included, such as the fact that the journey took three days, take on a significance that would be lost in Homer.

Much of this has to do with the aim of each narrative. Homer wrote a legend, in which the present is paramount and details simply add to the spectacle of the story. It is a good story, but Hebraic Scripture purports (and to us, is) more than a mere story. The Old Testament's primary aim is to present a single truth about the nature of man’s relationship with God and its development through the ages. The immediacy of events in Homer, together with the relative consistency of personality in the characters stands in contrast to the Old Testament. There, everything is fraught with the background story of salvation history (as the authors then understood it) while anticipating the fulfillment of this history in future generations. The personal development of individuals' relationships with God is of primary importance as well, considering that such relationships are exactly what drive the story of God's dialogue with men. We hardly expect to see the Abraham who descends from the mountain with his son unchanged by the experience, and indeed, we see a profound development in Abraham's relation with God, reflected by a renewed covenant. "Because you have done this, and not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you...by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice" (Gen 22:16-19.

Because of its purpose, gestures and words in Genesis aren’t depicted randomly – things that are not pertinent to the message of the story are hushed. Every word is there for a purpose and deserves attention when interpreting the passage. Though Homer’s tale explores many questions man has about existence just by its quality as a story, Auerbach says, such is not its direct aim. The Biblical authors sought to reveal divine truth and to comprehend recognize how it is that God interacts with the human race.