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.