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Goethe’s primal words

September 15, 2014

A few weeks ago I posted translations of two poems from Goethe’s middle years. To round out the view of the German poet, I’m posting one final translation, of a poem from Goethe’s later years–he was about seventy when he wrote this poem–a period in which he grew rather philosophical. Or, at least, his poetry grew more explicitly so. I haven’t read his collected works, but it seems as if, more and more, his poems did not even make allegorical use of character, plot, setting, instead becoming pure poetico-philosophical reflection. This can easily go wrong, but “Urworte. Orphisch” is a good example of it going right; perhaps, partially, because the use of Greek philosophical terms makes the poem’s language its explicit protagonist. These are primal words, creating a living world; the sequence DAIMON-TUCHE-EROS-ANAGKE-ELPIS becomes a dramatic arc in outline, each moment expanded in its own stanza into a philosophical tableau.

The primal words Goethe chooses tell a predictable story. You gain an identity; you wander around the world; you fall in love, arbitrarily; you orient your life around this love; you hope against hope that something good will come of it. I’ve never known quite what to make of this sort of idealization of romantic love. The best defense of Goethe’s version, perhaps, is that by raising it to such a level of abstraction–to a cosmic principle, even–the aura of meaningfulness that tends to envelop the individual love affair is stripped away. The beloved here merits only a single mention, at the end of the EROS stanza. The true beloved is ELPIS, who comes in at the end to reconcile two intertwined oppositions: DAIMON/EROS, that is, self-other, and TUCHE-ANAGKE, that is, luck-fate. (Intertwined because both self and other are both products of chance and, one chanced upon, impossible to alter.)

Or, at least, to promise reconciliation. But it seems to me too easy. With no risk (the gate is already unlocked) and no stake (no action is required), it should be no surprise that neither is there any real reward. I have a difficult time understanding the appeal of a poetic religion which demands no ethical change and whose promises are openly acknowledged to be empty. It looks more like escape.

Primal Words. Orphic

DAIMON. Daimon
As on the day that lent you to the world
The sun stood to greet the planets,
You so soon and on and on advanced
Under the law with which you began.
So you must be, yourself you cannot escape,
Soon so said sibyls, so prophets.
And no time and no power dismembered
Molded form, which living developed.

TUCHE. Chance
The strict bound yet went round gracefully
A Changing, that changed with and around us;
Not alone you stay, you make yourself sociable,
And act well as an other acts;
In life it’s soon un-, soon re-payable,
It’s a bobble, and it’s all bobbled through.
Soon the years’ circle’s gone round,
The lamp awaits the flame, it ignites.

EROS. Love
It doesn’t fail!–he plunges down from heaven,
Whither he swung himself from ancient wastes,
He floats up here on airy feathers
Round brow and breast the spring day long,
Seems now to flee, from the fleeing he returns,
Since he becomes a weal in woe, so sweet and scared.
Many a heart floats away at large,
But the noblest dedicates himself to the One.

ANAGKE. Compulsion
Then is it again as the stars wished:
Condition and Law, and all Will
Is only a wish, because we simply should,
And before the Will caprice is silent still;
The beloved is chided away by the heart,
To the hard Must comply will and whim.
So we’re seemingly free then, after many years
Just close to it as we were in the beginning.

But such a bound’s, such a brazen wall’s
Highest guarded-against gate is unlocked,
Though it stand with old rocks’ time!
An essence stirs light and unrestrained:
From cloudcover, fog, rainshower
She raises us with her, inspired by her;
You know her well, she swarms through all zones;
A wing-beat–and behind us aeons.

Love your self as your friend

September 8, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (which consists of notes from his lectures on moral psychology) does not set out to teach its audience to be good. No one, he says, will get anything out of his lectures who is not already good; all he can do is help those in his audience who are good understand what they’re being, so that they can be it better. But the Ethics are nevertheless continually cited for their moral advice. I do not think this is entirely inappropriate; though he’s surely right that ethics cannot be taught in a classroom, that does not mean that language is irrelevant to learning it. Exhortatory maxims can have play a useful role.

If we were to distill the Ethics down to such a maxim, or at least down to two, we might do worse than “seek the mean in all things,” and “love your self as your friend.”

The first maxim is fairly self-explanatory. Aristotle analyzes of virtue as the mean between extremes: for any action, sometimes it should be done, sometimes it should not be done. To be virtuous is to do it whenever it should be done, and not do it whenever it should not. Discussion of such matters takes up roughly half of the Ethics, Books II-VI.

The second maxim is more opaque, but also, I think, more interesting. It means to invoke the train of thought found in the other half, Books I and VII-X. If we think of the Ethics as proto-psychoanalysis, then Books II-VI are the catalog and case studies of the various neuroses and psychoses, while I&VII-X are the model of soul. It is in them that Aristotle develops his theory of the self, its desires, and their fulfillment.

The theory begins with the question: What is good for us? To be happy.

What is happiness? Not pleasure–that’s brutish. Not wealth–that’s a means to an end. Not honor–that’s just a way of reassuring ourselves of our own virtue. Not virtue–only a philosopher would call a virtuous man undergoing torture “happy.” More generally, each of these could be added to in a way that made the possessor better off, but happiness must be final and complete: one you are happy, nothing more should be desirable.

Well, what is good for anything? It is good to do well: playing the flute well makes one a good flautist. We should ask, then, what action makes one a good human. Humans are distinguished from other animals by their intellect, and so to act distinctively human is to use one’s intellect: to apply practical wisdom to one’s affairs, and to contemplate. (How are these to be balanced against each other? Aristotle does not say.)

How can we tell whether we are exercising practical wisdom? It’s difficult. We very easily deceive ourselves; we’re better at evaluating other people. But we also know that people tend to be friends with people they resemble, both because they seek each other out, and because they influence each other, each trying to help the other do better. The best way to ensure we do well, then, is to make friends who are wise. By observing them doing well, and by observing that we desire them to continue doing what they’re doing, we learn what it is to do well, and learn to desire it for ourselves. And so the good man is, in a sense, friends with himself:

For he is at unity in himself, and with every part of his soul he desires the same objects; and he wishes for himself both what is, and what he believes to be, good; and he does it (it being characteristic of the good man to work at what is good), and for the sake of himself, inasmuch as he does it for the sake of his Intellectual Principle which is generally thought to be a man’s Self. Again, he wishes himself And specially this Principle whereby he is an intelligent being, to live and be preserved in life, because existence is a good to him that is a good man.

In a deeper sense, however, a man’s self is not another friend, but rather a friend is another self. Man is friends with himself from the beginning, before he has other friends; he is the only person he cannot avoid spending time with. He must look outside of himself, to another self, a friend, only in order to learn how to be a good self-friend. We seek happiness for ourselves, but the best way to learn what happiness is, is to ask what we would want for our friends. We train our desire (orexis) through our friendship (philia).

Note that love in the sense of eros does not play an important role here, being just another instance of orexis (if for the sensation) or philia (if for the person). This is perhaps the greatest difference between Aristotle and Freud. I do not think it’s just a matter of vocabulary.

The veil of poetry

September 2, 2014

Too many months ago I posted here translations of two of Goethe’s early ballads; I meant to put up more such translations as they were completed, but never got around to it. In any case, here are two mid-career poems–I’m no Goethe scholar, but I believe both to have been written around the age of fifty. Like the previous pair, these are both allegories for artistic creation. But the tone has changed; those poems portrayed twilit encounters with daemonic powers, these poems imagine mystical powers of overwhelming clarity. And the erotic metaphors are now less familial and more religious in tint; the point is not that poetry might create something valuable, but that attraction to it might, through the purification (not destruction) of desire, bring about moral conversion. Suspicious as I am of poetry-as-substitute-for-faith, I prefer the ballads: that is, I suppose, I prefer magic to pantheism. Still, they’re impressive poems, in both imagery and language. I have doubtless failed entirely to do them justice; the translation is slavishly literal.

In the fourteen-stanza first poem, “Dedication,” the narrator climbs a mountain and, when the fog clears, has a vision of the spirit of Truth. There are echoes of the Dante-Beatrice dynamic; first the spirit must rebuke him for his unwillingness to help his fellow man, then it offers him, as a way to do so, the veil of Poetry. This veil offers his a reproducible medium between the impenetrable fog and the blinding sunlight. The metaphor is similar, in fact, to that Hopkins used in his (later) poem “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe”; I suspect Hopkins had read it. Though Hopkins’ metaphor seems to me better–it’s unclear to me what, for Goethe, makes poetry able to achieve this mediation. Note that this poem served as a dedication for Goethe’s collected works, and, presumably, should be interpreted as a declaration and justification of his own (divine?) inspiration to write poetry.

In the nine-stanza second poem, “The God and the Bajadere,” the Indian god Mahadeva (Shiva) descends to earth to test humanity and spends the night with a temple prostitute with a heart of gold. In the morning she finds him dead, and, in spite of the priests’ commands, she immolates herself on his pyre, and is carried up to heaven. This poem has an interesting rhythmic effect, which I have doubtless failed to capture; the first eight lines of each stanza are in trochaic tetrameter, the last three switch to anapests, imitating, doubtless, the shifting patterns of the girl’s dancing.


The morning came; its steps scared off
The quiet sleep which mildly embraced me,
And I, awakened, from my still hut
Went up the mountain with fresh soul;
I was pleased with every step
By the new blooms which hung full of drops;
The young day rose with delight,
And all was refreshed to refresh me.

And as I climbed, from the meadow’s river
A fog drew forth in soft streaks,
It moved and shifted to wrap around me,
And grew winged around my head aloft.
The finest views I should no more enjoy,
A cloudy flood covered the province from me.
Soon I saw myself as if by clouds enclosed
And locked up with myself in twilight.

Suddenly the sun shone to pierce through,
In the fog a clearness let itself see.
Here it sank, let itself swing down,
Here its rising shared itself round forest and height,
How I hoped to bring to her the first greeting!
After the fog I hoped for it twice as keenly.
The lifting strife was not yet completed,
A splendor surrounded me, and I stood bedazzled.

Soon there made me open my eyes
An inner urge of the again-bold heart,
I could only venture it with a quick blink,
For all shined too burning and too glowing.
There hung, borne within the clouds,
A godly lady before my eyes,
No finer sight saw I in my life,
She looked at me and stayed lingering hanging.

“Do you know me?” she spoke, with a mouth
From which all love and true tones flowed,
“Do you recognize me, I who in many wounds
Of your life poured the purest balm?
You know me well, to whom, in eternal bonds,
Your striving heart joined fast and faster.
Did I see you not with hot heart’s weeping
As a boy eagerly yearning after me?”

“Yes!” I cried out, as overjoyed I sank
Down to the earth, “Long have I felt you:
You gave me peace, when through young limbs
Passion restlessly ransacked;
You have as with heavenly plumage
Cooled my forehead on the hottest day;
You gave me the best gift on earth,
And every joy will I have only through you!

“I do not name you. Yet I hear you by many
Very often named, and each title you HIS,
Every eye thinks to aim on you,
Almost every eye your shaft brings to pain.
Ah, when I’ve erred, I’ve had many playmates,
Now that I know you, I am quite alone.
I must enjoy my luck but with myself,
Your fetching light cover and lock away.”

She smiled, she spoke: “You see, how clever,
How necessary it was, to reveal to you little!
Hardly are you safe from the coarsest deception,
Hardly are you lord of the first childrens’ wills,
That you believe yourself already over-man enough,
That you fail to fulfill the duty of man!
How much do you differ from the others?
Know yourself, live with the world in peace!”

“Pardon me,” I called out, “I meant it well.
Should I have opened my eyes in vain?
A fresh will lives in my blood,
I know exactly the worth of your gift.
If you wake in me for others the noblest good,
I can and will no more bury the talent!
Why do I search the way so full of yearning,
If I shall not show it to my brothers?”

And as I spoke, the high essence looked at me
With a blink of sympathetic forebearance;
I could read myself in her eyes,
What I missed and what I did right.
She smiled, that I was already convalescent,
At which my spirit climbed to new joys;
I could now with inner trust
Approach her and show myself to her.

Then the stretched out her hand in the streaks
Of light clouds and the fragrance around;
As she held it, it let itself be taken,
It let itself be drawn, it was no more fog.
My eyes could again wander in the valley,
To heaven I glanced, it was clear and lofty.
Only I saw her keep the purest veil,
It flowed around her and swelled thousandfold.

“I know you, I know your weakness,
I know what good in you lives and glimmers!”
So she said, so I hear her always speak,
“Receive here, what I long ago determined!
With it the happy one can on nothing break,
Who takes this gift with still soul.
From morning-fragrance woven and sun’s clearness,
The veil of poetry from the hand of truth.

“An when it becomes for you and your friends sultry
At noon, throw it into the air!
Straightaway murmurs round nightwinds’ cool,
Breathes around you flowers’ spice-odor and fragrance.
It quiets the woe of fearful earth-feelings,
Till cloudbeds stroll the vault,
Every life’s swell is becalmed,
The day becomes lovely, and the night becomes bright.”

So come then, friend, if on your way
The burden of living presses heavy and heavier,
When our road a fresh feminine blessing
With flowers adorns, with golden fruit tastes,
We go united against the next day!
So we live, so we walk happy.
And then also, if grandchildren mourn us,
To their desire still to take our love.


The God and the Bajadere

Mahadeva, the lord of the earth,
Comes down for the sixth time,
So he can turn into our likeness,
Feel with joy and pain.
He condescends here to dwell,
Lets it all happen to himself.
If he should curse or spare,
He must see men humanly.
And when he’d as a wanderer examined the city,
The great deplored, the small regarded,
He left them at nightfall to go ahead.

As he now goes about,
Where the last houses are,
He sees with painted cheeks
A lonely pretty child.
“Greetings, virgin!” “My pleasure!
Wait, I’ll come right out -“
“And who are you?” “A bajadere,
And this is the house of love.”
She stirs herself, to strike the cymbals to the dance;
She knows herself so lovely to carry in circles,
She bends and curves and hands him the bouquet.

Coaxingly she pulls him to the threshold,
Lively into the house.
“Handsome stranger, lampbright
Should straightaway the cot be.
Be you tired, I will refresh you,
Ease your feets’ hurt.
What you will, that you will have,
Rest, joy, or jest.”
She soothes busily pretend sorrow.
The divine one smiles; he sees with joy
Through deep ruin a human heart.

And he asks for slave-service;
Always brighter she becomes,
And the maiden’s early arts
Become more and more nature.
And so justified on the blood
Soon, soon, the fruit itself;
Obedience in disposition
Becomes not far from love.
But to prove her sharper and sharper,
Chooses the knower of heights and depths
Desire and horror and grim pain.

And he kisses the gaudy cheeks,
And she feels the lovers’ pain,
And the maiden stands ensnared,
And she weeps for the first time,
Sinks down to her feet,
No more won to wantonness,
Ah! and the supple members,
They deny all service.
And so to the camp’s pleasing celebration
Prepares the dark homely veil,
The nocturnal hour, the fine dream-web.

Late to sleep under jests,
Early wake after short rest,
She finds on her heart
Dead the much-beloved guest.
Screaming she falls down on him;
But she does not wake him,
And they bring the stiff member
Quick to the fiery pit.
She hears the priests, the death-song,
She races and runs parting the crowd:
“Who are you? what pushes you toward the grave?”

By the bier she falls down,
Her cry rings through the air:
“My spouse I will again see!
And I seek him in the tomb.
Should it fall apart to ash by me,
This member of god’s splendor?
Mine! he was it, mine before all!
Ah, only one sweet night!”
The priests sing it: “We bear the old,
After long tiring and late cooling,
We bear the young, even before they’ve thought it.

“Hear the priests’ teaching:
This was not your spouse.
You live as a dancing-girl,
And so have no duty.
Only the shadow follows the body
Into the still realm of death;
Only the spouse follows the spouse:
This is duty and glory together.
Resound, trumpet, to the holy charge!
O take, our Gods! the virtue of days.
O take the youth in flames to you!”

So the choir thus, without mercy,
Multiplies her heart’s distress;
And with outstretched arms
She springs into the tomb.
But the god-youth lifts up
Out from the flame aloft,
And in his arms floats
The beloved with him.
The Godhood rejoices in the repentant sinner;
Immortals lift up lost children
With fiery arms up to the sky.

Not without meaning

August 25, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

It should not be a surprise, given the name of this blog, that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books. I have never understood why most people find it a difficult read. Perhaps they just approach it in the wrong spirit. The book does not ask us to read it in a mood of profound seriousness; it asks us to approach it with laughter in our souls.

Not that it is not a serious work. It is about, not only the New England sperm-whale fishery, but also death, love, and the soul; law, politics, and religion; science, art, and God; and (more difficult still) it’s about this being-about-ness, about the act of meaning, about how we move from one thought to another. But–and this is part of Melville’s genius–he addresses these most serious and sublime of subjects with his tongue firmly in his cheek. He spellbinds us, only to dismiss the enchantment with an absurd hyperbole or a coarse joke. He offers deep insights, but all the while whispers: all this is vanity; laugh, and go learn what no book can say.

In lieu of a plot summary–the plot of the book is well-known, and simple enough–I would point to two small aspects of the book, each of which could be taken as emblematic of the whole. For this, too, is part of Melville’s genius: he makes it seem as if, despite the apparently arbitrary compositional choices–why, for example, have three chapters on determining the size of the whale?–some deep order underlies it all, such that the entire book could be reconstructed from a single trope, or a single scene. Such metonymic reconstruction would, of course, be impossible–but it feels as if it would not be; because it feels as if what wisdom the book has to offer can be contained in a single word as easily as in a hundred thirty-five chapters. Contained, that is, not at all.


The reader will notice, the very first chapter, a desire to find meaning in all things. And so we find catalogs such as the following:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. (Ch. 1: Loomings)

This is the first appearance of what could be the motto of the book: “Surely all this is not without meaning.” “Yes,” the reader may be tempted to respond, “but what is the meaning?” That would be to miss the point. We are not meant to take this catalog so seriously. It is enough, for Melville’s purposes, for us to recognize that a meaning could be seen in this combination. We are to enter into the state of mind in which such lists seem full of meaning; so full that the meaning need not even–cannot even–be said out loud.

And we are also to look at that state of mind from the outside; to laugh at it; to recognize that, seen from outside, it is insane. And so Ahab, the mad captain, often has the same response as the narrator Ishmael:

Though in the course of his continual voyagings Ahab must often before have noticed a similar sight, yet, to any monomaniac man, the veriest trifles capriciously carry meanings. (Ch. 52: The Albatross)

The whole world, then, is full of meaning–for he who has the eye to see it. But is it something we should wish to see? Moby-Dick does not answer this question–it answers no question. It only helps us to see the question more clearly. To see the meaningfulness in some of the meanings it offers, and to see that in some of the meanings madness lies.


And so over the course of the book, despite many false starts, enduring metaphors are built up. Most principally, the whale: the whale is the soul, and America, and the world, and God. So that when we come across a short story about measuring the dimensions of the whale, it is not just an amusing short story (though it is that), or a lyrical ekphrasis (though it is that too); it is a commentary on, among other things, divine transcendence, organized religion, European tourism, and the tentative nature of the artistic endeavor. Here Melville need not insist on the fullness of meaning, for we have already learned to see it ourselves: here he simply presents us the world in the skeleton of a whale, and allows us to see the meaning for ourselves. Because the story comes from my favorite chapter in the book, I will end this post by quoting it in full:

And as for my exact knowledge of the bones of the leviathan in their gigantic, full grown development, for that rare knowledge I am indebted to my late royal friend Tranquo, king of Tranque, one of the Arsacides. For being at Tranque, years ago, when attached to the trading-ship Dey of Algiers, I was invited to spend part of the Arsacidean holidays with the lord of Tranque, at his retired palm villa at Pupella; a sea-side glen not very far distant from what our sailors called Bamboo-Town, his capital.

Among many other fine qualities, my royal friend Tranquo, being gifted with a devout love for all matters of barbaric vertu, had brought together in Pupella whatever rare things the more ingenious of his people could invent; chiefly carved woods of wonderful devices, chiselled shells, inlaid spears, costly paddles, aromatic canoes; and all these distributed among whatever natural wonders, the wonder-freighted, tribute-rendering waves had cast upon his shores.

Chief among these latter was a great Sperm Whale, which, after an unusually long raging gale, had been found dead and stranded, with his head against a cocoa-nut tree, whose plumage-like, tufted droopings seemed his verdant jet. When the vast body had at last been stripped of its fathom-deep enfoldings, and the bones become dust dry in the sun, then the skeleton was carefully transported up the Pupella glen, where a grand temple of lordly palms now sheltered it.

The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebrae were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapoury spout; while, suspended from a bough, the terrific lower jaw vibrated over all the devotees, like the hair-hung sword that so affrighted Damocles.

It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver’s loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!—pause!—one word!—whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!—stay thy hand!—but one single word with thee! Nay—the shuttle flies—the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world’s loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar.

Now, amid the green, life-restless loom of that Arsacidean wood, the great, white, worshipped skeleton lay lounging—a gigantic idler! Yet, as the ever-woven verdant warp and woof intermixed and hummed around him, the mighty idler seemed the cunning weaver; himself all woven over with the vines; every month assuming greener, fresher verdure; but himself a skeleton. Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories.

Now, when with royal Tranquo I visited this wondrous whale, and saw the skull an altar, and the artificial smoke ascending from where the real jet had issued, I marvelled that the king should regard a chapel as an object of vertu. He laughed. But more I marvelled that the priests should swear that smoky jet of his was genuine. To and fro I paced before this skeleton—brushed the vines aside—broke through the ribs—and with a ball of Arsacidean twine, wandered, eddied long amid its many winding, shaded colonnades and arbours. But soon my line was out; and following it back, I emerged from the opening where I entered. I saw no living thing within; naught was there but bones.

Cutting me a green measuring-rod, I once more dived within the skeleton. From their arrow-slit in the skull, the priests perceived me taking the altitude of the final rib, “How now!” they shouted; “Dar’st thou measure this our god! That’s for us.” “Aye, priests—well, how long do ye make him, then?” But hereupon a fierce contest rose among them, concerning feet and inches; they cracked each other’s sconces with their yard-sticks—the great skull echoed—and seizing that lucky chance, I quickly concluded my own admeasurements.

These admeasurements I now propose to set before you. But first, be it recorded, that, in this matter, I am not free to utter any fancied measurement I please. Because there are skeleton authorities you can refer to, to test my accuracy. There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales. Likewise, I have heard that in the museum of Manchester, in New Hampshire, they have what the proprietors call “the only perfect specimen of a Greenland or River Whale in the United States.” Moreover, at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale, but of moderate size, by no means of the full-grown magnitude of my friend King Tranquo’s.

In both cases, the stranded whales to which these two skeletons belonged, were originally claimed by their proprietors upon similar grounds. King Tranquo seizing his because he wanted it; and Sir Clifford, because he was lord of the seignories of those parts. Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities—spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan—and swing all day upon his lower jaw. Locks are to be put upon some of his trap-doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side. Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing—at least, what untattooed parts might remain—I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

(Ch. 102: The Bower in the Arsacides)

The wager and the machine

August 20, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Apart from his mathematical work, Blaise Pascal is most well known for his infamous “wager,” an argument for belief in God which plays a central role in his Pensées (that is, “Thoughts”; his notes toward a defense of the Christian religion). Perhaps only Anselm’s ontological argument has a worse reputation. But–as with the ontological argument, for that matter–there’s actually a lot to be said in the wager’s favor; and the things to be said for it open out onto the system of the Pensées as a whole. So the simplest reason to read the Pensées is this: it will clarify how concepts like chance, certainty, infinity, and self-interest, play a role in our understanding of belief (or lack thereof) in God.

Pascal never puts it this way–though (or because) he was a mathematician, his prose style put elegance above clarity–but the wager boils down to a complex practical syllogism:

Practical premise:

  1. When truth is not available, one should seek happiness.
  2. The return in happiness on various actions can be compared.
  3. So one should do what has the greatest expected return.

Theoretical premise:

  1. Some course of action B presents itself, with probability of success R>0, such that the return on the action depends on some event G, with probability P>0;
  2. And such that it has the following expected returns: ex(not-B)=(1-P)*u+P*x, and ex(B)=(1-R)*((1-P)*v+P*y)+R*((1-P)*w+P*z); that is,
    no attempt | B fails (1-R) | B succeeds (R)
    Not-G (1-P) u v w
    G (P) x y z
  3. And such that u, v, and w are finite, z is positively infinite, and x and y are either finite or or negatively infinite.
  4. So no matter the specific values of P, R, u, v, w, x, or y, the expected return on attempting B is (infinitely) greater than that on not attempting it.

Practical conclusion: One should (attempt to) B.


The argument certainly seems valid. Pascal, of course, takes G=”God exists” and B=”believe in God,” and declares it sound. Is it?

In isolation, this move invites many objections, which seem to me to be of three basic types:

  1. Why should G=”God exists”? And why the Catholic God? This is the most obvious point of attack. Other possibilities, after all, present themselves: the Muslim God; the Hindu God; Zeus; Odin; the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and no one said P need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
  2. Why should B=”believe in God”? The usual objection is to point out the strangeness of choosing to believe; we can’t belief because it will make us happy, we have to believe because we think it’s true! It’s less frequently noticed that, just as with (1), there are other possible B’s that gum up the works: for example, flip a coin, and if it lands heads, believe in God; or, wait till your deathbed, then believe in God; or, do nothing, and perhaps wind up believing in God anyway. It doesn’t matter that these have a lower chance of success than an immediate conversion; after all, no one said R need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
  3. Why suppose z can be infinite? Why allow infinite returns in the first place? Not only do we have a hard time imagining infinite returns (Heaven always sounds rather boring), but allowing it causes numerous problems. (1) and (2) are just warm-ups. Consider: what if we acknowledge the possibility (no matter how slim) both of “negative infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” and “positive infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” (e.g. predestination)? This situation would contradict the second theoretical premise: it would be impossible to compare expected returns with one another, for every course of action would include infinity minus infinity, which is not zero, but rather undefined.

In response to objection (1), I believe, Pascal would ask another question: Why suppose P can be greater than 0? It’s easy to take for granted that any logically possible event, no matter how implausible, has at least some positive probability; but are we really justified in doing so? We might (I would) instead require that, before we grant that there is a chance an event will happen, we demonstrate that it is not only possible, but probable, in the original sense of tending toward a proof; demonstrate that there be reasons for believing it to be the case. So for any G, we must ask: why think G? Pascal spends much of the Pensées arguing that “the Catholic God exists” is the only G for which we can offer plausible reasons.

In response to objection (2), a similar question arises: Why suppose R can be greater than 0? What reasons do we have for thinking that we are able to B? Pascal agrees that one cannot choose to believe. One can, however, choose to “immediately put oneself in a position which will bring one to believe in the Catholic God.” That this does not involve “dishonest” belief is is easier to accept if you think of “belief in God” as less like “belief that there’s a chair” and more like “belief in reading”. We cannot choose to believe, any more than we can choose to know how to read; but we can choose to seek a teacher, and, Pascal spends much time arguing, this is the only course of action which we have any reason to think will succeed.

Objection (3) does establish a paradox. However, it holds only if we allow for more than one G. It is not, then, a weakness of the argument, but a strength. If you really, truly find multiple incompatible religious systems plausible, then Pascal’s wager gives you reason to feel paralysis. If, on the other hand, you accept Pascal’s arguments for the only plausible G and B, then your only rational option is to try to B. This will make game-theoretic reasoning in the future somewhat useless: B will win out every time, in every situation. So perhaps exclude infinite returns when deciding among strategies all of which are compatible with trying to B. But none of this is reason to dismiss infinite returns a priori. And Pascal gives many reasons for believing infinite returns to be plausible.


So the application Pascal would make of the wager commits him to three further claims:

  1. Our actions can have infinite consequences.
  2. Catholicism is the only plausible account of an adequate response to these consequences.
  3. Immediately and wholeheartedly immersing oneself in Catholicism is the only plausible strategy for becoming Catholic.

The wager makes no sense if we do not take into account his arguments for them. He does not pull them from thin air. All three follow from the second pillar of the Pensées: the Machine.


By the Machine, Pascal means the World seen as a mechanism. It is to establishing this point of view that most of the Pensées devotes itself. It is, for this reason, less argument than rhetoric; or, perhaps, not rhetoric, but poetics.

(1) The mechanism is of infinite size; indeed, as Pascal writes in the most famous sentence in French literature, “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” It is as if, for Pascal, this aesthetic sublimity requires an ethical absolute to counter-balance it. Either our actions can have infinite consequences, or they do not matter in the least, overshadowed as they are by the vast cosmic void.

(2) The mechanism includes humanity. We are selfish animals, acting according to a shallow (that is, finite) conception of our self-interest. Catholicism–in any case, Christianity–is the only instance of a way of life spreading throughout the world that is not based on selfishness, but rather on charity. Pascal has much more to say about the virtues of Christianity, but this alone, he believes, is enough to single it out as potentially divine: it indicates that an outside force tampered with the mechanism.

(3) This outside force is able to affect us because, though we are part of the mechanism, we, alone in the universe, are capable of thought: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” He is not, however, a willing reed; he inclines where the wind blows him. Thought offers a fulcrum outside the universe, but does not offer an unmoved motive force. We cannot, in fact, supply that force; it must come from outside. We can only consider–from within the mechanism–how best to position ourselves for the outside blow. This involves not doing something, but being something: adopting the appropriate habit, making it part of the fabric of our lives. So the death-bed conversion strategy doesn’t work; in fact, no strategy will work. For it is not neutral to put belief off till tomorrow. Resolving to believe tomorrow is not resolving to believe August 21th, but rather resolving not to believe now. If we put belief off till tomorrow, we are putting on unbelief today.


Postscript: I suspect that one reasons Pascal left the Pensées the way he did–fragmentary and disheveled–was that, though he had the argument, the wager, down, he could not get the poetics, the machine, quite right. He could not find an order of words which would not just lay out the idea for the reader to take or leave, but would operate like an Audenesque poetic machine, forcing the reader to adopt the perspective of infinity. Of course, such a machine is impossible; grace cannot be externally compelled. But that does not stop perfectionists from making the attempt. This applies, I suppose, to Wittgenstein as well. People often say that the two have much in common.

The road where speech goes straight

August 15, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

The Eumenides (“The Kindly Ones”) is the final entry in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only extant ancient Greek dramatic trilogy. (The final tragedy, anyway: the three tragedies would normally be associated with a more light-hearted “satyr play.” Only fragments of the Oresteia‘s satyr play Proteus have survived.) And it’s a play about endings, but also about beginnings. The end of the blood-feud, the beginning of the rule of law. The end of unconscious violence, the beginning of conscious self-control. It tells the story of how the name of Kindly Ones was bestowed upon the Furies, the chthonic goddesses of vengeance, in compensation for the pardoning of Orestes, whom they would otherwise have hounded to his death.

For, as seen in the preceding Libation Bearers, Orestes had murdered his mother Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus to avenge his father Agamemnon on the orders of the sun-god Apollo.

For, as seen in the preceding Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra had murdered her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War to avenge her daughter Iphigenia; and was aided by Aegisthus, who sought to avenge his brothers. Agamemnon’s concubine, the Apollo-beloved-and-cursed Cassandra, they murdered also.

For, as described at various points throughout the trilogy, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to calm the winds preventing the Greek armies from sailing to Troy; and his father Atreus had killed Aegisthus’ brothers and served them to their father Thyestes in a pie. Now Atreus and Thyestes were brothers, the children of Pelops; and Pelops was the son of Tantalus, who killed him and served him to the gods, who then resurrected him. So the matricidal Orestes comes from a long line of fillicides and fratricides.

It’s not difficult to see why the house of Atreus was considered cursed. It’s hard to make much sense of such a sequence of events, such a senseless repetition of violence, apart from some such concept. It’s quite tempting, in fact, to give the story a psychoanalytic reading, making it about the repeated expression of unconscious desires, and the need to confront and sublimate them, to bring them into Apollo’s light; or to give it a political reading, making it about the chaos of barbarism, and the need to channel it along the lines of civilization. And neither would be all wrong.

But what I find fascinating about the trilogy is how the sublimation, civilization, whatever, happens. The dawn of reason, in the Oresteia, is itself unreasonable. The undoing of the curse begins when Apollo, god of reason, demands Orestes avenge his father–a matricide to break the series of fillicides. But he does so not with reasons, but with threats; and he may well himself be moved less by Agamemnon’s death than by that of Cassandra, itself only a side-effect of the feud. Then, when the Furies hound Orestes and he seeks the gods’ protection, Apollo may cleanse Orestes of his ritual guilt, but it is Athena, not Apollo, who provides the final resolution and reconciliation, who makes enough enough.

She does so, moreover, in a way that does not rely on Apollo’s “arguments” at all. Nor does she provide many arguments herself–at least not ones we can take seriously. Rather, she delegates the decision to a jury of Athenians; she provides, not a reasoned decision, but a decision procedure. Never mind that the jury splits 6-6 and the decision devolves to Athena again. What matters is the form: the institution of the rule by law, of the impartial jury; and the endorsement of this rule by the chthonic chaos that it supercedes. The gods play-act at putting Orestes on trial so that we can imitate them in total seriousness. The Furies, persuaded less by anything promised them than by Athena’s invocation of the power of persuasion, accept a new order in which persuasion, not brute force, rules the land:

ATHENA: Are they taking thought to discover that road
where speech goes straight?
In the fearsome look of the faces of these
I see great good for our citizens.
While with goodwill you hold in high honor
these Kindly Spirits, their will shall be good, as you steer
your city, your land
on an upright course clear through to the end.

The entire trilogy feels like a dream. Its characters sleep-walk through their lives, tossed this way and that by the warring of the gods against themselves. Only pitifully inadequate reasons are given for any action, but despite this everything feels full of sense, feels, in fact, inevitable. Then, in the Eumenides, the gods step center stage, and bring the real conflict–not between persons, but between the forces that control persons–into the open. The conflict is not resolved–it cannot be resolved–but it dissolves itself, and we awaken.

I have felt this dream-like quality every time I read the Oresteia, and every time I read the Eumenides in particular. It is, to my mind, the best reason to do so. The play shows us what it would be like not to be reasonable, not to live in a world where speech goes straight, and reminds us that the route from such a world to a world like our own might not itself be one we would call reasonable. Waking up does not much resemble shouting “Eureka!” upon suddenly realizing that we were asleep.

Remember to pay the debt

August 11, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Don’t ask me why one should read Plato. That would be to say why one should study philosophy, and Plato’s Apology, his account of Socrates’ trial, did that already. Read that instead.

I will say a few things, however, about why one should read Plato’s Phaedo, which is, as it were, the sequel to the Apology, giving an account of Socrates’ conversation with his friends before his execution concerning why his execution will not bother him. For the Phaedo is–as one of my professors pointed out–a somewhat strange choice of Platonic dialogue, if you’re only going to read one. She meant strange for me in particular, but it’s also, I think, strange in general. Strange for me, because, if I’m interested in beauty and eternity, why not read one of the dialogues that actually brings those two concepts together–say, the Symposium, or the Phaedrus? Strange in general, because, well, it makes so much less sense than Platonic dialogues usually do. Socrates, usually a fount of reasonableness, instead spends the dialogue spouting forth cryptic statements and arguments that do not prove what they claim to prove. What’s going on here?

My choice of the Phaedo was, to be sure, determined in large part by happenstance–for example, I’d read neither the Symposium nor the Phaedrus before putting my preliminary list together, and so never even considered selecting them. But I also think that, in an important sense, the Phaedo fits for me just because it is so very strange. Because I am not, in fact, all that interested in beauty. It’s rather the connection between art and truth that I think significant (a connection to which beauty is, of course, relevant). Plato normally says very little about art, but his dialogues are marvelous instances of it, and perhaps no dialogue more so than the Phaedo. Its suggestive strangenesses are a part of its artistry, as is its self-consciousness about the connection between suggestive strangeness and artistry. That is: the strangest parts of the dialogue seem to be somehow about art, and I do not think this is a coincidence.


Without developing a full reading of the dialogue, then, I’ll list here what strike me as some of its strangest aspects. This will also serve as a summary of the dialogue’s content, though, as you’ll see, it barely mentions what most think the dialogue’s most important part.


(1) Near the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates, who in other dialogues almost always speaks disparagingly of poets and poetry, reveals that, in the time since his trial, he has been composing hymns to Apollo and putting Aesop’s fables in verse. Why? Because, Socrates says,

The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: ‘Cultivate and make music,’ said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music. The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, for the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed.

Huh? This kind of bet-hedging argument might appeal to someone more practically-minded, but Socrates is decidedly not that; he often argues that you should do what is right, and do nothing until you know what is right–no guessing allowed. Has he really had a change of heart? Is this “Socratic irony”? Or….?

(2) The majority of the dialogue Socrates spends attempting to prove the immortality of the soul. But his arguments are quite poor; indeed, they seem to have less to do with immortality, and more with eternity:

(i) From cycles: “the living come from the dead, just as the dead come from the living.” But that the living come from the dead, does not mean that the now-living are the same as the previously-living that have died! That life goes on does not mean that my life goes on.

(ii) From recollecting: We have a concept of “the equal” that is not reducible to individual equal things, so we must have had it before we began to see things as equal, i.e., before birth; and now, when we think we come up with the concept, we are in fact remembering it. But to have a priori knowledge is not the same as to have always been alive! Being alive before one’s birth would not even help: we would still require an explanation for how the immortal soul came to learn the eternal truth of the Equal in the first place.

(iii) From affinity: the body decays, and the soul does not, because “the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable.” But this is just begging the question! Why think that, because the objects of knowledge are eternal, therefore the individual knower is eternal also?

One might almost think that Socrates has been proving, not that individual souls, our souls, are immortal, but that something like an eternal Soul-principle, an eternal divine Knower, exists; and that our knowledge “imitates” his, imperfectly–meaning that, however eternal the divine Knower is–perhaps as eternal as the form of Table–my soul is just as immortal as this table….

(3) Socrates seems to be aware that his arguments are not entirely convincing; or, at the least, that they cannot sustain conviction on their own; they will require repetition:

[Socrates: ...] Like children, you are haunted with a fear that when the soul leaves the body, the wind may really blow her away and scatter her; especially if a man should happen to die in a great storm and not when the sky is calm.

Cebes answered with a smile: Then, Socrates, you must argue us out of our fears—and yet, strictly speaking, they are not our fears, but there is a child within us to whom death is a sort of hobgoblin; him too we must persuade not to be afraid when he is alone in the dark.

Socrates said: Let the voice of the charmer be applied daily until you have charmed away the fear.

Why would it require repetition? It sounds almost like a noble lie; but not quite, for it’s not false that the Soul exists–it’s just that the child will fail to understand what this means, and perhaps cannot fully understand it; the child will insist on it being about me, and my soul, not Soul proper. I do not think it a coincidence that the child of selfishness is spoken of in terms of hobgoblins and charms; for art and magic, too, have something to do with the self, with the individual will.

(4) After the initial arguments, Simmias and Cebes raise a number of further objections, and Socrates says, in response, that the worst thing to be is a misologist:

When a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another and another, he has no longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments.

Is this an admission that his previous arguments were false? Or at least imperfect? Certainly Simmias and Cebes’ objections–that the soul might be just a harmony, and that the soul might last for a long time, but still finally cease to exist–reveal a more sophisticated understanding of the problem than his initial arguments allow for. His responses are philosophically complex; indeed the philosophical heart of the dialogue, including Socrates’ philosophical autobiography. But I will not summarize them here. For the purposes of this post, I would say, they have little relevance: they only reinforce the sense that when Socrates says “soul,” he does not mean my soul.

(5) Like several Platonic dialogues, this one ends with a mythological account of the afterlife; this time, however, the myth is not quite the last thing we hear, and Socrates afterwards explains the purpose of the myth; and the talk of a “venture” recalls the issues with bet-hedging I discussed earlier:

Wherefore, Simmias, seeing all these things, what ought not we to do that we may obtain virtue and wisdom in this life? Fair is the prize, and the hope great!

A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the tale.

(6) Socrates’ last words appear, on their surface, to concern something utterly trivial, and in this very triviality seem to insist on an allegorical over-reading:

Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?

Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine. Socrates owes him a debt: why? Because he has been healed of the sickness of physical life, which for the philosopher is a kind of death? Or might there be some other reading? The language of “debt” reminds me, again, of the language of “safety” and “venturing.” I wonder if there is not some sense here of the importance of paying debts within this life and this world, despite all Socrates has to say about its irrelevance compared to the eternal world of Forms.


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