My Fundamentals exam begins in ten…
(check back next week for post-mortem miscellanies)
(in the mean-time feel free to re-read the various posts I’ve made on the topic)
(N.B. this post was pre-written and scheduled for publication; I’m not foolhardy enough to be writing a blog post moments before I receive the exam questions)
I love my Fundamentals list. I really do. But spending almost a year with the same fifteen books, while for the most part enjoyable, can occasionally grow a bit stale. Especially when there’s a formalized list of “books I’m supposed to be reading right now.” One begins to speculate about what books one could have put on that list, but didn’t… one is tempted, in fact, to read even the most difficult works, so long as they’re not on the list, just for the sake of variety. To read phenomenology in order to procrastinate on your Thomism.
The time of the exam is almost upon me. So I have no serious post for this week; instead, to exorcise the demons of procrastination, I have put together a list of my “shadow Fundamentals.” Some barely missed the cut the first time around. More only occurred to me after my list was approved. A few I even now have not yet read, and just want to. (These categories are not mutually exclusive.) And it’s almost surely the case that this list would not pass muster; it’s quite poorly balanced–over half are English language! a quarter are works of literary criticism!–, there’s not nearly as many heavy hitters, several entries are too idiosyncratic, at least one would be quite a stretch for the category in which I’ve put it… but–doesn’t it look like fun? As with the real list: these are all books that I want to be friends with.
- Augustine – Confessions
- anon. – Cotton Nero A.x (the Pearl/Gawain manuscript)
- Gerard Manley Hopkins – Complete Poems
- J.R.R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion
Philosophy, Religion, and Theology
- anon. – The Book of Job
- Aristotle – Poetics
- William James – The Varieties of Religious Experience
- Stanley Cavell – The Avoidance of Love
History and Social Theory
- Dante – De monarchia
- Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France
- John Henry Newman – The Idea of a University
- Erich Auerbach – Mimesis
Note that Aristotle, Augustine, and Dante make appearances on both the real and the shadow lists. This isn’t to say they’re my favorite writers; they just happen to have written multiple books for which I have quite a bit of affection, and which are different enough that switching from one to the other would be a nice change of pace. I’d have liked to keep on Plato, Aquinas, Shakespeare, and Wittgenstein as well, but–aside from the fact that doing so would make my shadow list way too much like my real one–the prospect of switching from my favorite to my second-favorite Platonic dialogue (etc.) doesn’t really sound all that appealing; it would just be more of the same.
It’s like what Isaiah Berlin says about foxes and hedgehogs, I suppose. But not exactly; you’d think foxes would be more likely to make both lists than hedgehogs–more variety–but while Plato’s a hedgehog and Aristotle’s a fox, no doubt, Augustine and Dante would usually be considered hedgehogs, and Shakespeare and Wittgenstein foxes (P.M.S. Hacker wrote that Wittgenstein was “by nature a hedgehog, but after 1929 transformed himself, by great intellectual and imaginative endeavour, into a paradigmatic fox”). Perhaps the point, then, is that variety of idea is not the same as variety of topic. Shakespeare and Wittgenstein were hedgehogs in their approaches, but each nevertheless had a single topic to approach, whether it be how we interact with each other, or how we interact with language. On the other hand, while Augustine and Dante each saw the world through a unified lens, they were nevertheless both interested in the entire world–in the individual life, the life of the city, the universe, and what lies beyond it. They were able to write literature, philosophy, and politics; foxes though they may be, I have difficulty imagining Shakespeare writing anything but drama and lyric, or Wittgenstein writing anything but… whatever it is he writes.
[For context, read this post.]
Draughtsman, scientist, critic, novelist, poet–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) wore many hats. He may have been, as the cliche goes, the last Renaissance man. (Plato, I suppose, was the first, though he wore all his hats at the same time.) Unfortunately–and though it may be unwise to admit this–I am not especially familiar with Goethe’s body of work. It is primarily the poet that interests me.
Particularly, in his mastery of such a variety of verse forms, and especially of the mid-length verse forms, e.g. ballad, elegy, ode, which require sustained forward momentum. In this mastery of these Goethe reminds me of the versatile English-language poets Yeats and Auden (though chronologically speaking, they really ought to remind me of him). Cf. the three recent posts in which I translated five of his lyrics (both for the translations, and for my comments on them); each is at least four stanzas long, and in the course of those stanzas each elaborates a complex, dynamic thoughtworld. Goethe creates, not just narrative momentum, but psychological momentum, in which the mood and thought of each stanza develops unexpectedly-inevitably.from the stanza before it.
The content of these thoughtworlds is, most often, the primordial subject of lyric poetry: erotic love, and its creation through poetry. Goethe’s distinctive contribution here, as I see it, lies in his treatment of erotic love as a philosophical tension, a struggle between real and ideal. He is deeply concerned with seduction, enchantment, and entrapment, with sublimation, freedom, and forgetting. Much of his poetry (especially “Dedication”–see middle link above) recalls Dante’s treatment of Beatrice, but Goethe focuses more emphatically on the question: what does this love have to do with this woman, and what does this poem have to do with that relation? Ultimately, he seems to conclude, very little: erotic love turns, or ought to turn, from the putative beloved to an exaltation of an innate potentiality in the lover; and the lover ought finally to see himself as the (female) beloved of the universal divine principle (which, however, resides within himself); and, through the power of his Genius, the poem escapes the orbit of the poet’s life to become a self-moving mover.
Goethe’s appeals to “Genius” sometimes seems little more than defense mechanisms against the perceived superiority of the poets of the “Classical” era; at other times, they can seem to be one of the most thorough efforts to explore the ways in which the contents of our minds contribute to the constitution of our world. (Cf. Kant, Coleridge.) So this, I suppose, is a third way in which Goethe’s work intrigues me. I’m not sure, however, that I can at this point write much on the subject that would be worth reading.
[For context, read this post.]
T.S. Eliot was not the most prolific of twentieth century English-language poets, but despite this he was one of its most important. Eliot said it was, in fact, because of his sparse oevre that he became a major poet. He was right in thinking that writing only a few poems can make each poem you write all the more important–at least, if the poems can bear the weight. The Four Quartets, the last poem, or rather poetic cycle, Eliot wrote, have an enormous amount of weight lying upon them.
They must bear even more weight, I think, because of the nature of the man who wrote them: Eliot by this point was, as he put it, “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” These positions were not too much more popular then than they are now. So the Four Quartets had at the same time to put a capstone on his poetic career, to justify his eccentric personal choices; and–most important of all–to be worthwhile poetry.
The Four Quartets, though they do not attack the reader the way his earlier poetry did, are nevertheless not easy reading; I did not learn to appreciate them until I lived with them for several years. But I now think that they rise to the poetic challenge admirably. They are an immensely personal poem–we never lose sight of who the speaker is, or why he feels the need to speak–without becoming “confessional” in the pejorative sense. They manage, instead, to feel confessional in the deepest sense, to tell “how it is with me” not emotionally but ethically. And they manage to be about poetry, and about the end of a poetic career, without feeling insular or self-involved; poetry, here, means absolute speech, and speech means meaningful action, and to write a poem means to deliberate over what to do when what you do matters absolutely.
Not, of course, that the Four Quartets answer this question directly. Insofar as they do answer it, they answer it four different times, in four different ways, as if to say that no answer to the question can stand alone. This makes them among the most complex lyric poems ever to be written. They are, perhaps, the longest major poetic cycle to have been written without the aid of an overarching structure provided by plot or subject matter.
How, then, do they fit together? In fact, in something of an accident.
A poem by the name of Burnt Norton made its appearance at the conclusion of T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1935. It had an air of finality to it. Its five-part structure, the fourth a short lyric, bore a skeletal resemblance to his 1921 The Waste Land, but the flesh had changed entirely. Not social satire, but mystical philosophy. Not the jarring fragmentation of voices speaking over one another, but the ponderous circling of a single voice around a single thought from many different angles. Not “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” but “Words, after speech, reach / Into the silence.” The Waste Land had made the writing of any further poetry appear impossible, an attempt to bring order to an irredeemably disordered language; Burnt Norton made any such writing appear unnecessary, a violation of the silence that was the most perfect poetry of all.
Then in 1940 Eliot published another poem, “East Coker.” It echoed the structure of Burnt Norton (now “Burnt Norton,” first in a projected four-part series) exactly: part one, philosophical statement and poetic dramatization; part two, lyric statement and explication; part three, journey along the via negativa; part four, lyric challenge; part five, poetic statement and mystical conclusion. The theme was only imperceptibly different; “Burnt Norton” asked how “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past,” while “East Coker” mused on “In my beginning is my end” and “In my end is my beginning.”
1941 saw the third poem in the projected four-part series, “The Dry Salvages.” It repeated the pattern once more, and, by centering its imagery on water, caused “East Coker” and “Burnt Norton” to adopt earth and air, respectively, as their elemental signs. Its other major contribution was to make the religious themes explicit; beginning “I do not know much about gods,” it nevertheless goes on to discuss the Annunciation, Krishna, the “Queen of Heaven,” and how “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”
In 1942 Eliot concluded with “Little Gidding.” The themes of the previous three poems–time, finalization, incarnation–are endlessly recapitulated; but a new strand enters with “the nearest, in place and time, / Now and in England.” History takes on a newfound importance. (It would not do to forget that the poem was written in time of war, or that the American Eliot had adopted British citizenship; several sections of “Little Gidding” reference the bombing of London.) What he says, the speaker realizes, cannot matter absolutely; he cannot speak absolutely, but must speak now, even if what he says can apply absolutely to all other nows. This lack of a final end offers itself as nevertheless a kind of conclusion:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
This fifth and final section of “Little Gidding” is often accused of being overly facile, of imposing its conclusion rather than arriving at it naturally. I cant agree. The key word is “shall”: not a statement, or even a prediction, but a promise. “Little Gidding” arrives, I think, at the realization that the purpose of a word is to carry out an intention; and so at the realization that he could have written more poetry, if he had needed to do so; and, at the same time, to the realization that he did not, and would not. (Save for the occasional occasional piece.)
[For context, read this post.]
The phrase “work ethic,” and the idea that Catholicism and Protestantism are somehow linked to dissimilar economic cultures, have become commonplace. But if these were all that Max Weber’s Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) contained, it would not be worth reading; it might be a “classic of sociology” in the sense of an exemplary early application of the “science,” but it would nevertheless be long since superceded.
But many of Weber’s arguments are, I believe, worth more than what scientifically-minded sociologists are able to cash them out for. Most importantly, he argues that, while analysis of objective data is not to be dismissed, it is on its own incomplete; we cannot understand a historical process objectively, but require imaginative investment. And this because–contra Marx–economic motivations do not determine all historical development; rather, culture and ethics, while shaped by economic structures, play an equally large role shaping the economy in return.
Hence the Protestant Ethic does not focus on what one might think; Weber does marshal a decent amount of evidence for the claim that Protestantism correlates with capitalism (though even today the point has not been conclusively determined), but the bulk of his argument attempts to explain how this happened. He attributes it to a shift Calvinism brings about in the ethical perception of monetary acquisition; this shift accidentally creates a capitalist economy that gradually replaces the Protestantism from which it emerged. The crucial datum, for Weber, is not the amount of money made through rationalized industry, but the shift from fourteenth century Catholic Dante’s comparison of usury to sodomy (both being forms of unnatural reproduction), to eighteenth century Protestant Benjamin Franklin’s claim that making money from other money was a moral imperative:
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. [...] Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and threepence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.
Weber’s argument for why Calvinism brings about such a shift is complex, but it’s fair to say, I think, that he sees Calvinism as distinctive primarily in its rationalism: its rejection of any explanation that does not conduce to optimization. Here are two key instances of the argument:
(1) Other-worldly asceticism, as found in monasteries, was condemned for its uselessness. Not, as we might think, because it’s useless practically speaking; Calvinism does not assume the value of practicality, it argues for it. Rather, because it does not in fact maximize production of its stated goal. Monasteries do not produce spiritual perfection; rather, they function as symbols of spiritual perfection, as “signs of contradiction,” and they perform this function whether or not the monastics perfect themselves. This symbolic structure–symbolic because of its lack of optimization–Calvinists equated with hypocrisy. Hence Calvinism encouraged this-worldly asceticism: sacrificing, not by withdrawing from the world, but by working without rest in the world, doing the Lord’s work. And this very encouragement resulted in the elevation of practical efficacy as a sign of spiritual value.
(2) Calvin espoused a theory of strict predestination, in which human freedom played no part in determining who was saved and who was damned. He did so, Weber says, because it is the only possible rational, mysticism-free theodicy. (Note: I’m not sure I buy this argument.) And what are the psychological effects of such a belief? One might think, at first, that this would result in moral indifference: if my fate is already sealed, why try to change it? But in fact, Calvinists (though not Calvin) concluded that, while perhaps one can do nothing about it, it must be possible to know whether one is saved or damned, since, after all, there is already a fact of the matter. And because we cannot be true to ourselves without knowing who we are, it becomes imperative to know. And since there’s already a fact of the matter, it can’t change–if you’re damned now, you’re damned no matter what you do–it becomes imperative to avoid at all costs the production of proof against one’s salvation, and to seek at all costs the production of proof for it.
So (1) success in this world is the best proof of success in the next work; and (2) proof of success in the next world is ethically imperative, since the fact of the matter is already determined–we are the only ones ignorant about it. Combined, these give the result that success in this world is ethically imperative, and must be rationally maximized.
And because our time in this world is limited (and no one had yet imagined that the limit could be raised), success in this world could only be maximized by maximizing the rate of production: the amount of money earned in a fixed amount of time.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.